Sports Safety: A Second Opinion

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Dr. Steve Rowson, of Virginia Tech’s Center for Injury Biomechanics, recently released a report evaluating injuries in youth football. “There are more players at the youth level [so] this is an important subset to study and better understand how you might reduce concussion incidents in the future,” he said.

Whereas Dr. Michael Collins’ study (see main story) found that most concussion incidents occurred during games, Rowson’s study found greater rates of high-magnitude head impacts during practices. By changing drills and other procedures, Rowson believes youth football programs can reduce the rates of high impact head collisions among players — which is something any youth sports or rec program can learn from.

“It’s a product of the practice structure,” he said, noting that Pop Warner already revised its rules, reducing the practice of certain drills and contact configurations that may lead to severe head impacts.

The rates of head injuries among school-aged and high-school football players in each of the studies noted were similar, Rowson said. However, since athletic trainers and doctors are rarely on the sidelines at youth football games, he said head-injury reports among the two populations differ.

“You’re relying on the parents and the coaches to diagnose or identify whether or not there may be a problem,” he said. “There are challenges with the diagnosis of concussions at this level.”

Rowson said that he cannot comment definitively regarding the effects of repetitive concussions and cumulative head impact on young athletes. However, he said most state legislative policies and organizational protocols are more geared toward identifying such injuries than preventing them.

Researchers elsewhere, including those at the Boston University School of Medicine, have drawn links between repetitive head impacts in sports and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

“CTE results in a progressive decline of memory and cognition, as well as depression, suicidal behavior, poor impulse control, aggressiveness, parkinsonism and, eventually, dementia,” reads a 2011 Boston University report on repetitive brain trauma.

“Given the millions of youth, high school and collegiate and professional athletes participating in contact sports that involve repetitive brain trauma,” the report continues, “CTE represents an important public health issue.”

While some youth sports programs have taken measures to reduce head impact incidents during practice, Rowson said that it is too early to tell whether such precautions have actually reduced incidents of head injuries during youth play.

Rowson encourages football program managers to better identify “at-risk events” during play, whether incidents occur during games or practice, and modifying those events to improve player safety. “That would be an example of restructuring practices to reduce the high-magnitude impacts from occurring,” Rowson said.


—James Swift