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Study Finds Youth Football Players Show Changes in Brain Development

5 questions answered to better understand concussions and who can help with the injury

The war on concussions is alive and well, unfortunately we still don’t have a lot of answers and may not have the answers for some time. The scariest part of this is that our youth are the ones most susceptible to this unknown. But what do we do with our youth in the meantime? As parents, you are the ones that ultimately decide what activity your child plays. For most of you, your goal is for your child to do what they love and get some exercise. For others, your goals are much bigger. These kids are playing a sport for fun, they aren’t getting paid or getting a free education. They are playing a game.

As a parent you have to ask yourself, what are you willing to sacrifice for your child to play a game?

For some, it’s a cost that parents are starting to reconsider. New research out of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center shows that repetitive hits to the head during all football activities, whether it’s practice or games, are actually changing the anatomy of a developing children’s brains.

These are hits to the head that aren’t necessarily resulting in concussions, but are sub-concussive hits. The hits to the head on routine tackles and blocks add up to hundreds of hits over the course of the season. This means that the kids aren't showing any visible signs of a concussion and it’s believed that the brain is actually remodeling when these sub-concussive episodes are happening. The developing brain of a child between the ages of 9-18 changes a lot, and during this time period, repeated hitting does not help development. They have started to see some changes in the white matter of the brain. The white matter is all the connections within the brain, and what they are seeing is the more hits to the head causes an increase in changes. At this time, this study is still very small and this trend hasn’t been shown across a large population. The study followed 25 kids over the course of a season. However for some, the study is very eye opening as to what our kids are going through.

As you are reading this, there are probably a 1,000 things going through your mind. At the top of that list, you may be asking how can kids play a sport that can actually change the structure of their brain?

For a lot of you I am sure you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, I played football” or “I know a lot of people that have played football and they turned out just fine.”

Especially places where football is a tradition in a lot of homes, and the question of not playing football is not on the table. I am not recommending that you pull your children out of football or that football shouldn’t exist, especially based on some new, small study. As someone that helps treat children with concussion symptoms, I urge you to at least ask these questions and to be as proactive as you can.

1. What is a concussion and how do they happen?

A concussion is an injury to the brain that comes from a hit, a fall or an injury that shakes/ jars the head. Concussions are not only football injuries. They can happen in any sport or in daily life.

2. What can I do to be proactive?!

  • Put your child ahead of winning.
  • Make sure the coach is teaching the correct fundamentals.
  • Proper tackling form can diminish the likelihood your child will hit their head.
  • Helmets are not weapons.
  • Despite claims, no helmet has been proven to prevent concussions.

3. What does a concussion look like?

Concussions are injuries to the brain and they are not injuries that you should play through.

Concussions can present in many different ways. The most important thing to think about is if your child is not acting like his or her normal self. Children may also present or complain of:

  • Vision changes - such as sensitivity to light and intolerance to reading.
  • Dizziness/ Vertigo.
  • Memory loss.
  • Loss of consciousness (Fainting).
  • Vomiting.
  • Changes in mood.
  • Lowered attention span.
  • Changes in hearing and balance.

4. When should we seek help?

  • If there is any sign of concussion you should seek immediate medical attention.
  • Any suspicion of a concussion should be treated as a concussion until proven otherwise.
  • Find a sports medicine physician that specializes in concussion management to ensure that signs and symptoms are not missed.

5Who else can help treat the symptoms of concussions?

Concussions may require an overall specialized, team approach:

  • Physician to make sure there's nothing more serious going on and to manage the care of the patient.
  • Speech and Language pathologist – can help with memory, organization skills and higher level language skills.
  • Audiologist - to help with hearing and balance.
  • Occupational Therapist- can help if patients have trouble using their hands, writing in school or visual/ spacial management.
  • Physical Therapist- can help balance, dizziness and safely return to sport.
  • Ophthalmologist- can help with visual problems.

To learn more about Cook Children’s ImPACT program, click here.

Other Resources:

About the author

Alan Littenberg, PT, DPT, is a sports physical therapist at Cook Children’s SPORTS Rehab. At Cook Children’s, our physicians, therapists, nurses and technologists work exclusively with kids and understand the unique needs of a growing athlete’s bones, muscles, body and mind to get your child back on the field as safely and fast as possible


The Sources:

Ricardo Guirola, M.D., specializes in Rheumatology and Sports Medicine. Dr. Guirola takes care of athletes and being part of their active and directed therapy. As part of his education, Dr. Guirola obtained a Master's of Education. He uses those skills to teach families, students, residents, nurses and other physicians. Outside of his medical practice, Dr. Guirola spends times with family, runs and plays soccer and tennis.

Ryan Blankenship, PT, MPT, SCS, is a SPORTS physical therapist at Cook Children’s. Cook Children’s SPORTS Rehab is a leader in the community in sports injury. Additional information and helpful tips can be found on the Cook Children’s SPORTS Rehab website. Cook Children’s SPORTS Rehab is a leader in the community in sports injury prevention.

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