Head blows in contact sports not child’s play

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

SPOKANE, Wash. – Hoping to address concussion concerns and declining participation, the youth arm of the NFL in September will roll out a pilot program that alters how football is played by its youngest athletes. USA Football aims to reduce the head-banging force of the game by testing a new format called modified tackle.

Keeping a close eye on the change is Janessa Graves, assistant professor at Washington State University’s College of Nursing and a pediatric injury researcher.

“Knowing that young athletes’ developing brains make them more susceptible to concussion injuries, it only makes sense that we would want to reduce, if not eliminate, intentional blows to the head,” she said.

Concussion delivers big impact

As many as 2 million U.S. children and teens are estimated to suffer sports and recreation-related concussions each year, with symptoms ranging from headaches, nausea and dizziness to memory loss and coordination problems. While many young patients recover within a week or so, others endure lingering cognitive and physical effects for months or even years, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

WSU pediatric injury researcher Janessa Graves. (Photos by Cori Medeiros, WSU Spokane communications)

Contact-sports concussions has become a hot topic in recent years, with a roster of professional athletes speaking publicly about battling the side effects of head injuries and more research proving the potentially damaging effects on children.

“Children’s brains undergo rapid growth. A blow to the head can steer that crucial growth off course,” said Graves.

The medical term for concussion is mild traumatic brain injury. Yet as Graves concluded in one of her studies, this “mild” form of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, isn’t so mild. By analyzing data of health insurance claims among 300,000 children and teenagers diagnosed from 2007-2010, she and her colleagues discovered that concussions make up a remarkable 96.9 percent of all pediatric TBI cases (American Journal of Public Health, October 2015 – http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302744).

“The study demonstrates that mild traumatic brain injury contributes to substantial health care costs in our country and shouldn’t be dismissed as minor or inconsequential,” she said.

Making sports smarter

Collecting data, conducting research and educating the public are all effective tactics to reduce concussion risks, but some lines of attack should occur on the playing field, said Graves.

Modified tackle is one example, as is Washington state’s “return-to-play” law passed in 2009. In what turned out to be a trailblazing kickoff, all other 49 states enacted similar laws within five years. Today, whether in Seattle or Syracuse, if a concussion is suspected in a young athlete, he or she must immediately stop playing and not return until evaluated and cleared by a health care provider.

“To protect our young players, it makes sense that we more closely examine how some sports are played,” said Graves.

USA Football’s plan to introduce a new game format “is a welcome acknowledgment that going head to head puts young athletes’ brains at risk,” she said.


News media contacts:
Janessa Graves, WSU College of Nursing, 509-324-7257, janessa.graves@wsu.edu
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209, linda.weiford@wsu.edu