Can a Single Football Season Cause Brain Damage?

Researchers continue to explore the connection between “minor” repeat brain contact and long-term injury. It seems that every day comes with new studies and test results being released which shed more light on the ways that previously ignored incidents can have lasting effects on head health.

For example, it is only in recent years that the serious damage caused by a lifetime of playing contact sports was publicized. Many were shocked to learn about the serious brain injuries affecting former NFL players, including a few whose suicides have been linked to playing-day connected brain damage. That eventually took the form of a large lawsuit filed by thousands of former players against the NFL with allegations that the league was negligent in allowing the injuries to continue and failing to warn athletes of the danger. As most know, there was a settlement in one of those large cases earlier this year.

More Are At Risk
However, one problem with the focus on NFL concussions is that some younger athletes (and their families) may be lulled into the mistaken belief that only a lifetime of contact can cause serious harm. After all, only a slim minority of players will ever reach the college athlete ranks, let alone the professionals. Are players in Pee-wee or high school football also at risk of harm from minor head injuries inherent in the game? What about those who only play one season?

According to some new researchers the answer is Yes.

An LA Times story this week touched on new research which found measurable brain damage even between a single season of football playing. The college football players and hockey players examined in the study had brain scans before a season and then after. Alarmingly, the players showed clear brain damage between the tests–even those that did not suffer any identifiable concussion during the year. These results were unique to those athletes, as subject in different sports (track and field, cross country skiing, etc.) did not show the damage over that same season.

The results are set to be published in the next edition of the Neurology journal and should be understood by all athletes and their families. It remains to be seen if the damage somehow heals itself between seasons or if players are affected for a longer period of time. At the very least, researchers note that the findings are a reminder that monitoring for concussions alone is likely insufficient. Even athletes that never appear to take a hit which would suggest a concussion are still at risk of damage from the many smaller knocks they take in games and practices.

As a legal matter, all of this research should weigh into the basic brain injury prevention protocols followed by those involved in these games, including league officials, administrators, coaches, trainers, and more. No longer is it acceptable to allow any sign of brain injury go without treatment. When an athlete may have been hurt, they must always be given time to rest and be tested for injury. The “shake it off” mentality must be corrected to ensure athletes do not have their lives permanently affected.

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