Today I learned that Chris Borland of the San Fran 49ers is retiring from the NFL at just 24 years of age, as he is concerned of the long term effects of the head injuries and concussions that are associated with the sport. Is this an over-reaction, or is Chris right? And if he is right, do we need to re-evaluate American Football as a whole over these safety concerns? I looked into this to see if there is any research to back-up Chris’ decision.
It is a fact that concussions are common in American Football, but did you know that 90% of all concussions don’t involve a knock-out? Which means these head injuries are even more common than we think.
Short term effects of football related head injuries are easier to measure. This was investigated in a cohort of college football players and revealed that the more head injuries a player had – the more changes there were in diffusivity in the white matter in several parts of the brain – which was also linked to poorer learning and memory scores.
There has been some research on the long term effects of these repeated concussions on the brain. A particular study measured changes to brain white matter upon helmet impact and if this change in white matter recovered. It was clear that there was no white matter recovery in time. This is a huge problem as white matter changes can build up upon further repeated head impacts. This would back up Chris’ decision as it shows that the sport has a long term detrimental effect on the brain, but the full extent of these long-term effects are yet to be fully researched – this is a big issue, not just in American football but in all other contact sports.
So is this research a game changer? (Pardon the pun..) Maybe to stop more young NFL athletes leaving the game so soon, and to protect those who continue to play we should change the game rules to make it safer? I get that this is a pretty wild idea given the scale and popularity of the sport, but we could perhaps make things safer by fully enforcing rules against rougher play. This idea was suggested by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine who said that ‘fair play’ and proper rule enforcement could prevent these head injuries to an extent. They also suggested that designing helmets specifically to reduce the incidence and severity of concussions could help prevent these injuries, as current helmets are designed more with the prevention of impact injuries such as lacerations and fractures in mind.
I’m not sure I could give up a salary that good based on the research that has currently been done. There is a lot of support for his decision, but I feel like there is still a gap in the understanding of the long term effects of this sport. Chris is reported to be taking part in further research in this field, which is great news, we could do with more research on real people to inform and protect more players in the future.
Till next time,