During a recent dinner table discussion with my family, my 8-year-old son brought up the subject of concussions in football. He was doing a research project called “Genius Hour” and had to come up with a topic/problem he was interested in, along with some ideas on how to solve a problem related to his topic. After a lot of brainstorming, he decided to research concussions and how it relates to young football players, and at what age they should consider playing tackle football. My son loves sports of all kinds, but football is by far his favorite. He has been playing flag football since he was four and has dreams of being the quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings one day….while also being a drummer for his rock band. We have talked about when the right time is for him to transition from flag football to tackle. He has friends who are already playing tackle football now and have been playing for a couple of years.
I work as a physical therapist (PT) at Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy and while talking with patients of mine in the clinic, football is often a topic of conversation. Many times I have been asked what sports my children play. Numerous times the response to my son playing football is something along the lines of “Why would you let him play football? That’s so dangerous.” I tell them that my son loves it and he’s only playing flag football for now. But, of course, all of the more recent talk and research about concussions is something that concerns me as a mom and as a PT. The fact that my son is performing some research on the topic made me want to learn more about concussions and young football players.
My son is finishing up his research report and is writing letters to leaders in youth football, including the director of Pop Warner Football, about encouraging kids to wait to play tackle football until after age 12. He found research suggesting that children’s brains are more developed by that time and that prior to age 12 the brain is more susceptible to injury, which could lead to difficulty with school and behavioral/emotional issues down the road. The PT in me would agree with that, and also argue that children’s motor skills are also more developed by that age so they are better equipped from a physical standpoint to utilize proper tackling form.
Following my son’s lead, I delved into a little research myself. I found a study by Boston University which was published in the journal Nature’s Translational Psychiatry in September of 20171. In the study, which included 214 former American football players now with an average age of 51, the athletes who played youth football prior to the age of 12 had twice the “risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function” and three times the risk of “clinically elevated depression scores.” Research about this topic continues to be published and most of it points to the benefits of waiting beyond age 12 to play tackle football as it could lead to both long- and short-term neurological consequences.
Due in part to this research, we are seeing changes in the way the sport is played at all levels now, from youth to collegiate, and in professional play. In fact, if you look at the way the game of football was played when the athletes from the Boston University study played youth football compared to how it is played today, there have been significant changes already. Pop Warner has eliminated kickoffs and other leagues have eliminated tackling in practice. For those of us out there who are NFL fans, you can’t miss the “concussion tents” along the sidelines. It appears all the talk about concussions has improved awareness and spurred on positive changes to help improve the safety of the game for all ages.
So if changing some things in the game could help reduce the number and severity of concussions, how are we changing the way we treat people with concussions? Early treatment is key in assessing, recognizing, and treating most cases of post-concussion syndrome. At Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy, we have physical therapists and athletic trainers on staff who have been trained in the treatment of individuals with post-concussion syndrome. They serve as a great resource not only for treatment but also prevention tactics for those who play contact sports.
Many aspects are involved in the evaluation process after a concussion, including assessing sleep, any changes in balance, dizziness, eye movement, concentration, coordination, neck pain, psychological changes, and headaches. There is still a lot to be learned about the effects of concussions and how to treat them, but all of the increased attention surrounding concussions may and should bring about tangible adaptations to the sport — in order to minimize the likelihood of negative consequences — and changes in how/when to treat someone post-concussion. These changes will help keep our young athletes safer when participating in youth sports.
When I told my son I was writing about concussions and some of the changes that are being made — in how the game of football is played and how people with concussions are being assessed and treated — for the Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy blog, he put his arms up in the air, mimicking a touchdown call, and yelled “YES!”
- Study suggests link between youth football & later-life emotional, behavioral impairment. (n.d.). Retrieved March 27, 2018 online