The Consequences of Head Injuries in Sports
Certain sports leave players very vulnerable to Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). These are defined as “a blow or jolt to the head, or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain,” and are very common particularly in football, boxing and cycling. In 2009, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated there to have occurred 446,788 sports-related brain injuries in the US, which represented an increase from the year before. The real numbers may be even higher, since many people unfortunately do not go to the hospital following a head injury. Surprisingly, cycling is responsible for the highest proportion of sports-related brain injuries, mostly due to cyclists’ failure to wear helmets. While that makes this sport’s injuries the most common, it also makes them the most preventable.
Attention is often more focused on football and boxing, since heavy collisions are inherent to these sports, and since they are so popular. Both types of athletes often suffer serious concussions that have devastating effects including early-onset dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). But even if football players don’t ever get a serious concussion, the small hits still add up. Research conducted at the University of Oklahoma suggests that the longer a person plays football, the smaller his hippocampus, and the slower his cognitive processing speeds. By the time a player reaches college, his cognitive processing is on average 14% slower than his non-football-playing peers. Boxers suffer similar consequences, since they too receive repeated blows to the head. Some of these athletes show signs of CTE even in their early 20’s.
The Risks for Young Brains
Findings about the dangers of sustaining a brain injury while competing are particularly worrisome because it’s not only professionals who are at risk: Children play these sports, too. Kids are less coordinated and able to control their collisions than professional players, and their brains have not finished developing. Emergency rooms in the US treat about 135,000 children per year for sports-related brain injuries. A child can fully recover from a single concussion, but if they keep playing the sport that brought them to the ER, it’s quite likely that they’ll suffer another. One concussion increases the likelihood of a second.
Sometimes, in a culture that loves sports and loves competing, coaches and parents underestimate the risk. Still, the sports community does seem to be catching on. Many youth leagues now require coaches to undergo rigorous training to recognize the symptoms of a head injury, and helmet technology is constantly improving. Nevertheless, some question whether certain sports like football are suitable for kids at all. It’s easy to agree that a child’s future health is far more important than the outcome of a youth football game, but it will take time and effort from coaches and parents to make the necessary changes.