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Abilene Reporter-News (Texas)
Headline-grabbing media coverage about the serious effects of concussions on professional football players has made some parents hesitant to let their kids play football or other sports.
Nationwide, the number of teenagers playing high school football has declined about 5 percent since 2008, according to a study published this year in JAMA Pediatrics. And even in Texas, home to Friday Night Lights, we have seen a falloff in participation.
As both a researcher who studies brain injuries and as a parent, I believe these fears have become somewhat overblown.
While every head injury must be taken seriously, most concussions result in short-term symptoms. And the benefits from participating in team sports outweighs the costs of leading a sedentary life, even considering the risks of concussion or other injuries.
Unfortunately, heart-breaking stories of pro football players who showed signs of a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in post-mortem examinations have heightened fears that playing contact sports will potentially bring on this devastating disease.
This is a misperception.
Not everyone who hits their head ends up with a concussion, and the vast majority of concussions do not result in CTE. While we are learning more about the brain every day, we cannot yet identify who is at higher risk for prolonged recovery from concussions.
Public concern has been growing as the NFL gradually has adjusted its rules to try to make the game safer. In the latest change, players this season will be penalized if they lead with the helmet on any tackle.
On the scientific side, a study released last year led to widespread misunderstandings about the connection between football and CTE, which has been linked to repetitive head trauma. The article, published in JAMA, reported that CTE had been found in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players — or 99 percent — that had been donated for analysis.
It covered only a highly select group of cases — players who had reportedly shown signs of mental decline before their deaths — and is not representative of all pro football players. Yet some media reports inferred that CTE is a common disorder. The truth is that less than 200 cases have been confirmed worldwide since first identified in boxers in the 1920s.
Currently, CTE only can be diagnosed at autopsy by measuring the level of tau protein in certain parts of the brain, and researchers even disagree on the amount needed. A buildup of tau in the brain has been linked to more than 20 other conditions, including normal aging.
I fully support increased awareness to the risks of concussions. That's why I helped to establish the ConTex concussion registry at UT Southwestern Medical Center, in partnership with the state's University Interscholastic League, to gather data on concussions suffered by student-athletes from middle schools and high schools in Texas. And it's why we conduct workshops with high school coaches and trainers to provide the latest information.
But we can't bubble wrap our kids and sometimes they are going to get injured. My son played soccer from childhood through college, and suffered several concussions. While I was concerned as a parent, he fortunately recovered quickly each time after receiving appropriate treatment.
If you're weighing this decision as another school year begins, my advice is to let your kids play sports as long as they are physically and mentally prepared and you're confident in the ability of their coaches and athletic trainers to handle injuries. If your son or daughter shows signs of concussion, make them sit out. In most cases, they'll recover after a brief rest.
Dr. Munro Cullum is a neuropsychologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center's Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute in Dallas.
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