Fort Worth, Texas,
10:25 AM

Concussions: How many are too many?

A SPORTS physical therapist's message to parents of football players

With the Super Bowl marking the end of football season and the movie Concussion starring Will Smith in theatres the topic of concussions has never been more talked about more than it is today.

If you have paid attention to football over the last several years you know that there have been many rule changes geared toward preventing concussions.

Most of these rule changes have been spurred on by a huge law suit that was brought against the NFL by a large group of former players, in which the NFL will wind up having to pay out more than 1 billion dollars. The bottom line and what is portrayed in the movie is that there was research that brought into question the harmful effects of repetitive head trauma related to football. The NFL rather than looking into this and aiding this research in an effort to find out more, put its efforts into discrediting the research and trying to cover their own interests.

The research they were trying to discredit dealt with the autopsies done on the brains of former NFL players that displayed a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repetitive brain trauma, including sub-concussive hits to the head that do not cause immediate symptoms.

Individuals with CTE may show early symptoms of dementia, such as memory lossaggression, confusion, and depression. Just this past week Ken Stabler former Super Bowl winning quarter back for the Oakland Raiders who played 15 years in the NFL and who died in July was found to have stage 3 CTE.

While there is much more research that needs to be done to fully understand the potential long term effect of concussions and repetitive head trauma the current evidence can’t be ignored. One of the scariest things about concussions is how much we don’t know.

While the NFL is portrayed in a pretty bad light in the movie, in their defense I don’t think they reacted much differently to concussions than the majority of the population does. For the longest time I think a lot of people (myself included) had the attitude of “Oh it’s just a concussion.”

Working with concussion patients in clinic I have heard parents say, “I played football and got a few concussions I didn’t realize that it was a big deal.”

There are many athletes who might get a concussion, recover well and never have any other problems, but there are also patients who have an extremely difficult time recovering. We see patients take months to recover and report constant headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, difficulty concentrating in school, and mood swings.

We have seen patients whose parents report a complete change in their personality where they are much more angry and aggressive than they were before the injury. The scary thing is we don’t know how a person is going to react after a concussion, or how many concussions are too many, or if the repetitive sub-concussive trauma that they sustain is enough to cause problems later in life.

I played football when I was younger. I’m not coming out against playing football, but when I played you couldn’t start playing tackle until your eighth grade year which means 13-14 years old. We have to remember that elementary age through high school kids still have brains that are developing and we need to protect them.

The longer they play full contact football the more hits and more traumas they are exposed to, so I think we need to pay close attention to when we let our kids start playing tackle football. We also need to keep a close eye on how our kids recover if they do sustain a concussion. The longer and more difficult a patient’s recovery is the first time they have an injury, the more likely they will have a long, difficult recovery if they sustained another concussion.

Finally, how many concussions are too many? The answer is we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that concussions are mild traumatic brain injuries. We also know that CTE is a condition found in people who have suffered repetitive brain trauma. So how many concussions constitute “repetitive trauma?” That is a question we cannot answer for sure, but one that I think parents should think long and hard about before letting their kids back on the field.

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