Head injuries in football, as in other contact and collision sports, cannot be completely eliminated, but there ARE steps that can be taken to minimize risk. MomsTEAM's high school football concussion documentary, "The Smartest Team,"TM focuses on what what MomsTEAM calls "The Six Pillars"TM of concussion risk management:
Pillar One: Comprehensive concussion education
A comprehensive concussion risk management program begins with education. All stakeholders in football - athletes, referees, administrators, parents, coaches, and health care providers - should be educated about:
- ways to reduce the risk of concussion and brain/neck/spine injury (Pillar Two);
- early identification of concussion, its clinical features (signs and symptoms), and assessment techniques (Pillar Three);
- conservative treatment and management (physical and cognitive rest) and return to learn (Pillar Four);
- principles of cautious return to play (Pillar Five ); and
- factors suggesting that retirement from football and other contact and collision sports is advisable (Pillar Six)
Pillar Two: Protection (Minimizing Risk)
As a collision sport, football involves inherent risk of brain injury. While the risk of concussion and brain trauma from the cumulative effects of low-grade (e.g. sub-concussive) hits in football cannot be completely eliminated, there are at least seven steps that can be taken to minimize such risks:
- Requiring comprehensive sports physicals;
- Ensuring that players wear properly fitted helmets;
- Teaching players proper tackling and blocking technique, and keep their head up to brace for contact;
- Encouraging players to strengthen their neck muscles;
- Strictly enforcing existing rules against helmet-to-helmet contact and against defenseless players;
- Adopting new rules where there is strong evidence that a particular aspect of play increases injury risk;
- Working to reduce total brain trauma:
Pillar Three: Early Identification
To minimize the risk of delayed recovery and long-term injury (or, in rare instances, catastrophic injury or death), it is critical that football players suspected of having sustained a concussion be removed from play as soon as possible. Identifying a concussion as early as possible requires a multi-pronged approach using the Five "E's":
- Employing a certified athletic trainer with specialized expertise in the identification of concussion on the sideline at every game and practice;
- Encouraging honest self-reporting by athletes of concussion symptoms;
- Equipping players with impact sensors to alert the sideline to impacts of sufficient force to possibly cause concussion in order to trigger either close observation of the athlete to look for signs of concussion or a formal sideline screening.
- Evaluating players on the sideline (or in the locker room) utilizing sideline assessment tools capable of detecting concussion; and
- Ensuring that no player is allowed to return to game or practice play if there is even a slight suspicion, based on the sideline evaluation, self-reported symptoms, or observable signs, to suggest that the athlete may have suffered a concussion.
Pillar Four: Conservative Treatment (Physical/Cognitive Rest)
Experts recommend taking a common sense approach involving staying home from school for the fist couple of days after concussion to get physical and cognitive rest, followed by a gradual return to a full school day ("return to learn") and social activities, which is symptom-limited (e.g. done in a way that does not make symptoms worse, and discontinuing an activity if symptoms get worse or reappear).
- Physical rest While strict bed rest is not necessary, most experts recommend broad restrictions on physical activity in the first few days after a concussion.
- Cognitive rest
- Return to Learn
While an athlete must be 100% symptom-free before a return to sports
(Pillar Five) , he or she does not need to be 100% symptom-free to
return to school.
Because concussion may still be affecting their thinking, ability to remember (especially new information), and organization, however, parents and school personnel (e.g. school nurse, school psychologist or a neuropsychologist, and teachers) should work together to help student-athletes to "return to learn" by adjusting their academic workload (taking time off from school to going partial days), and making other appropriate academic accommodations), for student-athletes who are still exhibiting cognitive problems.
In the 10-15% of cases in which concussion symptoms persist for 10 days or longer, management by a team of health care providers with experience in sports-related concussions is recommended; in those that fall outside the usual 1- to 3-week recovery window, academic accommodations will need to stay in place longer.
Pillar Five: Cautious Return To Play
Return to play (RTP) after a child or teen suffers a sport concussion is a six step, exercise-limited process (1) which should proceed slowly and err on the side of caution in order to allow the brain time to fully heal :
1. No activity (symptom-limited physical and cognitive rest)(Pillar Four). When a student-athlete is no longer reporting concussion symptoms or receiving academic accommodations, and performing at or near his pre-injury baseline on all post-concussion tests (e.g. neurocognitive, balance, vision ), he may proceed to Step 2.
2. Light aerobic exercise such as 5 to 10 minutes on an exercise bike, walking, swimming or light jogging, at 70% or less of maximum permitted heart rate, but no resistance training. Monitor for a return of any symptoms. If no symptoms recur, progress in 24 hours to Step 3. If symptoms recur, wait 24 hours, and, if symptoms clear, try again.
3. Sport-specific exercise. Continue with moderate jogging, brief running, moderate-intensity stationary biking. No head impact activities. If no symptoms recur, progress in 24 hours to Step 4. If symptoms recur, wait 24 hours, and, if symptoms clear, try again.
4. Non-contact training drills: more complex training drills, e.g. passing drills, running plays without pads or contact. May start progressive resistance/weight training. If no symptoms recur, progress in 24 hours to Step 5. If symptoms recur, wait 24 hours, and, if symptoms clear, try again.
5. Full-contact practice: Following medical clearance (now required in most states), an athlete may participate in normal training activities. Such participation helps to restore the athlete's confidence (remember: psychological readiness for a return to play is just as important as physical readiness), and allows the coaching staff to assess the extent to which the athlete is ready for game action. Again, if symptoms recur, wait 24 hours, and, if symptoms clear, try again.
6. Return to play with medical authorization.
Generally, each step takes at least 24 hours (concussion symptoms, of course, may take much longer in some cases to clear), so that an athlete whose symptoms clear within the first 24 hours after injury will take approximately 1 week to complete the full rehabilitation protocol once they are asymptomatic at rest and with exercise.
Experts nevertheless caution that, while an estimated 80 to 90% of concussions heal spontaneously in the first 7 to 10 days, a more conservative RTP approach is recommended for children and adolescents, as they may require a longer rest period and/or extended period of non-contact exercise than adults because their developing brains cause them to experience a different physiological response to concussion than adults and to take longer to recover (1).
In the absence of daily testing by a health care professional with concussion expertise (certified athletic trainer, school/team physician) to clear a student-athlete to begin the graduated return-to-play protocol, a student-athlete should observe a 7 day rest/recovery period before even commencing the protocol. This means that, for such athletes, return to sports will take at least two weeks. Some leading concussion experts, including one, Dr. Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, featured in The Smartest Team, believe that three weeks off from sports is appropriate after concussion (7).
Younger students (K-8), should observe the 7 day rest/recovery period
after they are symptom-free at rest prior to initiating the
graduated-return-to play protocol.
As young athletes tend to consider only a small subset of their potential symptoms when reporting their recovery or saying they are "back to normal" after concussion, caution is urged in considering athletes' self-reported symptoms (8) in their return-to-play decisions, and the same caution is warranted in relying solely on neurocognitive test scores having returned to normal before the graduated exercise protocol is begun.
Indeed, a recent study (9) of concussed student-athletes who reported no symptoms and had returned to baseline on computerized neurocognitive tests taken before beginning the graduated exercise protocol, found that more than a quarter exhibited declines in verbal and visual memory on the tests after moderate exercise, prompting a recommendation that student-athletes not be cleared for full contact activity until they are able to demonstrate stability, particularly in memory functioning, on neurocognitive concussion testing performed after the exercise protocol is begun. While this was just one study, additional post-exercise neurocognitive testing may eventually become an important part of the RTP protocol.
Pillar Six: RetirementMedicine has not yet figured out how many concussions is too many. The number that leads to permanent deficits in memory, concentration, and other cognitive processes, and/or that increases the risk of dementia and other problems later in life, is likely different for each athlete.
Several factors will likely influence a recommendation to an athlete to consider retiring from contact or collision sports (1,10,11), including:
- Number of concussions: Contrary to popular belief, there is no magic number of concussions that disqualifies an athlete from further participation in contact or collision sports. The number of concussions is a factor, but only one. (1,10,11)
- Concussions occurring with less force. For some athletes, as the number of concussions rises, the force required to produce a concussion seems to decrease. When an athlete reports developing concussion symptoms after a seemingly minor blow to the head (such as an accidental blow to the head by the arm of an opponent or friend), such a sign is concerning, and will prompt a sports concussion specialist to discuss retirement with the athlete (1).
- Slower recovery. Most athletes recover from concussions quickly, in a matter of days to weeks. In high school-aged athletes, nearly 85 percent will be symptom-free within one week of their injury. For some athletes, however, the recovery time is much longer, lasting weeks to months. For others, they recover from their first few concussions quickly, but as they suffer more concussions, the recovery time increases, lasting weeks to months, or in some rare cases, longer than a year.
- More pronounced cognitive losses. After a concussion, many athletes lose some cognitive function, e.g. their ability to think, remember, concentrate, and reason, which they regain as they recover, and which is a prerequisite to return to play (Pillar Five). For some athletes, the cognitive losses they experience at the time of injury increase with the number of concussions, with their memory, reaction time, and the speed with which they process information (all of which can be measured through pen-and-pencil or computerized neurocognitive testing), becomes much worse (10,11).
Even without the presence of these concerning factors, there remains some risk, of course, from continued participation in contact or collision sports after concussion, with increased risk of a second concussion.
Complicated family decision
For most athletes, retiring from contact or collision sports has a major impact on their lives. For elite high school and college athletes trying to make it to the pros, it means giving up their dream.
Even for athletes at the high school level and younger, much social activity, self-identity, and enjoyment comes from sports participation, which, studies show, have many benefits for both boys and girls. The importance of such participation is often underestimated by clinicians, parents, teachers and other adults.
Often, when an athlete stops playing contact and collision sports, they lose the friends they spend time with before practice, while dressing for sports, stretching, warming up, after practice, while changing and showering, and on the bus ride to games. Not being around during these times means they miss out on conversations, jokes, the latest gossip, and the discussions that make people friends. This can be quite devastating to the athlete.
The decision to retire should be made jointly, after long discussion
between the athlete, the athlete's family, other people important to the
athlete (e.g. coach) and the team involved in the athlete's care,
including the physician, neuropsychologist, nurse practitioner, and
other members of the care team, and takes place over a series of visits
lasting weeks to months.
For those young athletes who do not seek to play professional sports, or who do not have a realistic chance of doing so, most will assume less risk, and will retire from high-risk sports after fewer concussions than prompt an athlete who earns their living by playing professional sports to retire.
Ultimately, athletes make the decisions themselves, and only in very rare cases will a doctor refuse to allow an athlete to return against his or her wishes, and, even then, they are encouraged to seek a second opinion (11).
Brooke de Lench is the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and the Producer and Director of The Smartest Team, a documentary about implementation of the Six Pillars concussion risk management program by the high school football program in Newcastle, Oklahoma.
5. Kutcher J, McCrory P, Davis G, et al. What evidence exists for new strategies or technologies in the diagnosis of sports concussion and assessment of recovery? Br J Sports Med 2013;47:299-303. (accessed March 21, 2013)
6. McCrea M, Iverson, Echemendia R, Makdissi M, Raftery M. Day of injury assessment of sport-related concussion. Br J Sports Med 2013;47:272-284.
7. Moser R. Ahead of the Game: The Parents' Guide to Youth Sports Concussion (Dartmouth College Press 2012), p. 102.
8. Sandel N, Lovell M, Kegel N, Collins M, Kontos A. The Relationship Of Symptoms and Neurocognitive Performance to Perceived Recovery From Sports-Related Concussion Among Adolescent Athletes. Applied Neuropsychology: Child. 2012; DOI:10.1080/21622965.201 2.670680 (published online ahead of print 22 May 2012)(accessed June 5, 2012)
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10. Giza C, Kutcher J, Ashwal S, et al. Summary of evidence-based
guideline update: Evaluation and management of concussion in sports:
Report of the Guideline Development Subcommittee of the American Academy
of Neurology. Neurology 2013;DOI:10.1212/WNL.0b013e31828d57dd
(published online before print March 18, 2013)
11. Meehan WP, Kids, Sports and Concussion (Praeger 2011).
Most recently revised April 27, 2013