Fatalities in Football Are Down, but Traumatic Brain Injuries Are Up

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A survey of severe brain injuries in football shows two major, interrelated trends.

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Traumatic brain injury in sports players has gained more attention in recent months, after soccer headers were shown to lead to permanent damage in the tracts connecting brain cells and two professional sports players succumbed to "boxer's dementia," or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And now, a new study finds that young football players are suffering serious head injuries more than before. Luckily, the numbers are still low.

Neurological injuries resulting in death have basically been decreasing in the past few decades: The 1960s saw 128 and the 2000s saw just 32. But serious brain injuries rose to 14 in 2011, and spinal cord injury with incomplete recovery numbered eight for the same year. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, there were 14, nine, and seven spinal cord injuries, respectively.

High school kids see professional players on TV using their heads that way and announcers saying, 'that's a great hit.' Kids think maybe that's what they should be doing.

Overall, the rate of "catastrophic" injuries is still very low, however, at about 0.19 occurring for every 100,000 cases. The rate of injury with incomplete neurological recovery is about 0.4 in 100,000.

Study author Frederick Mueller underlined the fact that injury rates are going up while the death rate is lower. "I think that's related to kids getting better medical care on the field," he said in a news release; "they're not dying, but they're having permanent brain damage."

While the number of traumatic brain injuries does seem to be going up, it's important to remember that these are raw numbers from year to year, so fluctuations are to be expected. Still, it's also clear that any opportunity to reduce the numbers should be taken, since any occurrence is one too many. Some states, pointed out Mueller, require parents and their young players to meet at the start of the season to discuss the symptoms of concussion. He also urges parents to talk to the school and ask how the coach is training players and what emergency plans are in effect during practice and games.

The bounty issue that was in NFL news toward the end of this past season also doesn't help matters any. "That's probably the worst thing that's happened in football in a long time," said Mueller. "High school kids see professional players on TV using their heads that way and announcers saying, 'that's a great hit.' Kids think maybe that's what they should be doing."

The study (PDF) was carried out by researchers at the University of North Carolina and Emerson Hospital in Concord, MA.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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