High school football players sustain greater head accelerations after impact during play than do college-level football players - forces which can lead to concussions and serious cervical spine injuries, says a 2009 study.1
The study urges coaches to teach proper tackling techniques in order to reduce the risk of head and neck injuries among high-school athletes.
- High school athletes represent the single largest group of football players in the U.S. and account for the majority of sport-related concussions.
- In a given year, between 4 and 6 percent of high school football athletes sustain concussions, corresponding to an estimated 43,200 to 67,200 injuries annually.
- The true injury incidence is likely much higher, says the NATA, with some research suggesting more than half of high school athletes who get concussions do not report their injuries to medical personnel.
The NATA report hypothesizes that physical maturation and the associated neck strength and endurance of the high school athletes might explain the discrepancy between their collegiate counterparts. On average college athletes weigh 33 pounds more than high school athletes, but they stand only 1.2 inches taller, suggesting collegiate athletes have a more developed musculature system that is better able to control head motion after impact.
"The number of injuries occurring during high school football, where the disparity in medical coverage is the greatest, drives the need for a better understanding of head impacts among younger athletes," said the study's co-author, athletic trainer Steven P. Broglio, PhD, ATC, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The most notable finding from this investigation was that the average change in speed the player's head experienced following impact during games and practices exceeded that reported at the collegiate level across all session types including scrimmages, games and practices.
The distribution of impacts -- and the magnitude of impacts -- across helmet locations also differed by the level of play. In college football players, blows to the front of the helmet were 10 percent less frequent and resulted in less force than in high school players. Conversely, impacts to the top and back of the helmet in collegiate athletes occurred more frequently, but with less force.
Avoiding helmet-to-helmet contact
Most concerning was the impact to the top of the head in high school athletes which yielded the greatest force. "The increased impact intensity to the top and back of the helmet likely elevates the risk of concussion and severe cervical injury," Broglio said. "This finding highlights the need for coaching [and teaching] proper tackling techniques, such that the athlete keeps his head up and avoids contact with the top of the helmet."
Source: National Athletic Trainers' Association
1. Broglio SP, Sosnoff JJ, Shin S, He X, Alcaraz C, Zimmerman J. Head Impacts During High School Football: A Biomechanical Assessment. J Ath Tr 2009;44(4):342-349
Added July 17, 2009; updated March 1, 2013