Ready for Some Football…and Concussions

Football player

Photo by Kenneth Staub

My oldest son recently played in his first junior high football game, starting on the kick return team. Watching him stand on the field, ready to block any potential tackler who dared cross his path, I, as his father and first coach, couldn’t help but feel excited, satisfied, and proud. A part of me…the part that is a speech-language pathologist and instructor of a course covering adult neurologic disorders…viewed the unfolding scene with some apprehension. Fortunately my son made it through that kick off and the several others he played unscathed. Not so fortunate was a young running back who suffered a concussion on a sideline tackle in the third quarter.

The statistics regarding concussions and young athletes are certainly pause worthy, as made evident in a recent article by Bakhos, Lockhart, Myers, and Linakis in the journal Pediatrics (August 30, 2010). Though participation in youth football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and hockey programs has decreased by 13% since 1997, the incidence of concussion in these same sports increased by 200% during that time. Among football players aged 7-11 it was estimated that 8 in every 10,000 participants suffer a concussion, jumping to 27 in 10,000 in the 12-17 age group (the figures are even higher for each age group in hockey). What increases the disconcerting nature of these figures is that they might be underestimations. McCrea, Hammeke, Olsen, Leo, and Guskiewicz in an article that appeared in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine (January 2004) reported that up to 53% of football players did not report sustaining concussions or experiencing concussion-like symptoms. Reasons for this included players not considering their injury serious enough to require medical attention, an unwillingness to risk missing future games should the injury be reported, and being unaware of concussion symptoms. Based on their data, McCrea et al. estimate that 15% of all high school football players sustain a concussion each season.

What do the above figures mean? To put it simply…better education of coaches, players, and parents is required. Not only should this involve educating all concerned parties about the sign, symptoms, and effects of concussions, but it should also include a component focusing on prevention. Who should provide this education? The speech-language pathologist, with his/her knowledge and skills in the area of traumatic brain injury, is as good a professional as any.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has two very informative programs, loaded with materials and resources, that the speech-language pathologists can share with parents, coaches, and athletes: Heads Up: Concussion in Youth Sports and Heads Up: Concussion in High School Sports. But short of not participating, what can be done to reduce the risk of concussions in football and other contact sports. Resources regarding concussion prevention are abundant on the internet. With football in mind, I personally like the recommendations of WIsportsconcussion.org, which include: (1) wearing an appropriately fitting helmet in the correct manner; (2) teaching the player appropriate tackling techniques which avoid using the head as the primary point of contact; (3) strengthening the neck muscles; and (4) wearing a mouth guard.

Because of some unfortunate accidents in recent years, my son’s school district is well versed in concussion awareness and treatment. Neurologists have held in-services for interested members of the district on the subject of concussions. Many coaches and players have been taught the signs and symptoms of concussions, knowing what to do should an injury be sustained. ALL athletes, not just football players, are subject to ImPACT testing of their cognitive skills at the start of their respective seasons. It’s because of this increased awareness and the systems which are in place that the reader can be assured that the young athlete who suffered the concussion in the first paragraph will not return to action, in either practice or games, until he has been medically cleared to do so.

(Note…The author’s son suffered a broken foot during the first game of the year and is out for the season. He is expected to make a full recovery and plans to play football in 2011.)

Kenneth Staub, M.S., CCC-SLP, is an Assistant Professor, Communication Sciences & Disorders at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. He will be a regular contributor to ASHAsphere and welcomes questions or suggestions for posts.