Researchers from Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs recently published a study showing that 87 of 91 deceased NFL players were found to have evidence of the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. These latest findings add to existing evidence that playing contact sports can have dangerous, long-term risks — even for school-aged children.
Nearly half of the players who tested positive were the offensive and defensive linemen who come into contact with one another on every play of a game. This supports earlier research suggesting that frequent and more minor head trauma may pose the greatest risk to players. An athlete playing a contact sport like football is at risk for CTE even if he or she never suffered a concussion.
That being said, what should parents of young athletes know, and is there any way to help prevent or safeguard children against risky head injuries?
According to Dr. Vikram Udani, a neurological surgeon affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, parents should wait until their child is at least 13 years old before letting them participate in activities where head trauma is possible. Until children reach adolescence, their brains are still developing, and head impact should be avoided.
“Parents need to be very concerned about the long-term effects of repetitive trauma to the head,” Dr. Udani warns. “This can occur not only in football, but also in soccer, rugby or hockey.”
He explains that education in proper technique is crucial, such as tackling with the body and never leading with the head.
If there is a significant head trauma during a game or a child demonstrates any signs or symptoms of a concussion, they need to be immediately removed from the game. If they returned to the game and sustained another head injury, they may be at risk for long-term brain damage.
So, is it possible for football — or any contact sport — to be “safe”?
As Dr. Udani points out, any sport with the potential for head impact carries some degree of risk. While football is being singled out in the news because of the recent findings in NFL players, other sports could be just as dangerous if not played properly.
If someone chooses to play a contact sport, their best “protection” is proper equipment and technique.