Accumulated “Normal” Football Hits More Dangerous Than “Vicious” Hits

Thomas Talavage, a Purdue associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering, from left, and biomedical engineering doctoral student Evan Breedlove, monitor impact data from high school football players. Recent research findings suggest many high school football players suffer undiagnosed changes in brain function and continue playing even though they are impaired. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

There’s been a gigantic hoopla over the past couple of weeks regarding violent and vicious hits in the NFL. It has probably been a long-time coming, what with so many players leading with their helmets, hitting other players’ heads and causing jaw-jarring impacts. With such sudden accelerations, it’s no wonder that their brains get rattled around and damaged in the process.

But what about all of the football players that never actually get a concussion? Just because they don’t experience that one, devastating knock on the noggin doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not doing damage to their brains. And now there is research to prove it.

In a potentially game-changing research paper from Purdue, Thomas Talavage, an expert in functional neuroimaging who is an associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the Purdue MRI Facility, has shown that there is a previously unknown class of football players who exhibit signs of brain damage despite never having experienced a concussion.

Part of what makes this concussion question so confusing is that modern medicine knows so little about the brain, and even less about what a concussion is really all about. Despite numerous studies, science has not provided an answer to the biomechanics behind concussions, been able to predict concussions based on kinematics (acceleration, position, velocity, etc.), nor been able to identify individuals more predisposed to suffer a concussion than their peers.

If so little is known about one of the most damaging, traumatic events that a football player can experience, then much less is likely to be known about the damage accumulated by those players who never have a concussion. Point in case, the new study from Purdue identifies a new category of football players who – though never having experienced a concussion – show signs of brain damage equal to or surpassing those that have.

For the study, the team of researchers recruited 21 members of a high school football team who had never before experienced a concussion. They put motion sensors into their helmets,  tracked how many times they were hit, and how hard the hits were during all of their practices and games for an entire season. They then ran the players through a battering of mental tests consisting of an ImPACT test (a computerized neurocognitive assessment tool used by coaches, athletic trainers, doctors, and other health professionals to assist in determining an athlete’s fitness to return to play after suffering a concussion) and an fMRI brain scan.

The results were pretty clear. Of the group, fourteen completed the entire regimen, with three experiencing concussions during the season. These three were put through the mental exams within 72 hours of the injury. Also of that group were eight players who were never diagnosed with a concussion and put through the same tests at the end of the season.

Because the researchers also put the players through the tests prior to the season in order to establish a baseline, they could determine the detrimental effects of the collisions during the season.

The researchers were very surprised to learn that of the eight concussion-free players, four showed symptoms of brain damage. Specifically, the fMRI showed significantly decreased activation levels of parts of the brain strongly associated with working memory. And what’s more, they were found to be at least as impaired as those who had been concussed.

What is interesting to me – as a former high school football player – is that most of these players were linemen. Because linemen typically line up so close together, they usually never have the opportunity to build up enough steam to cause a big impact and produce a concussion. However, they are hitting someone every single play, likely with the front to front/top of the helmet. Apparently, more research must be conducted to find how prevalent long-term damage from lower impacts is among football players.

After all, this was just one team at one school during one season at one level of play. And it was only four players. But still, chances of this being a widespread phenomenon are pretty high.

And it makes me wonder if I didn’t used to be just a little bit sharper.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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