Research on Repetitive Hits, And New Helmet Technology, Change Attitudes Around Concussions

Sep 27, 2017

Repetitive hits, which do not cause concussion symptoms, may be causing long term harm in athletes who participate in contact sports up to the age of 12, according to a new study from Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center.

Schools like Kennett High School in Northern New Hampshire are responding to compounding research on the risk of brain injuries in athletes by incorporating new technology into their sporting equipment and modifying treatment procedures for brain injuries to help keep their athletes safe.

Check out The Exchange's conversation with two physicians who study concussions and the brain, and two athletic trainers from high schools in New Hampshire. You can find links and multimedia on the latest research, and listen to the full conversation. 

The young brain, around age 12 and under, is at greater risk of long term injury from contact sports.

Dr. Robert Stern serves as director of clinical research at the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center at Boston University, which recently conducted a study focused on the brains of youth football players before the age of 12. 

Dr. Stern:

[12] is not a magic number...[but] previous research shows the brain is undergoing these key periods of development and maturation where several brain structures and functions reach their peak development during the period leading up to age 12, at least in boys. And that's why we initially chose that cutoff [for our study]... 

It seems to be that there may be this period of neuro-developmental vulnerability leading up to that period in puberty, where if you hit your head over and over again, it may result in long term problems. 

Repetitive head impacts, which do not cause concussion symptoms, are still harmful to developing brains.

Dr. Stern:

This wasn't a study of concussions at all, and most of our research, and research from other groups looking at long term consequences for people in middle age and alter age find that it's not concussions [that are only causing problems], but rather these sub-concussive hits, where the brain gets moved around quickly, rapidly inside the hard skull, inside a helmet, where there may not be any symptoms of concussion.

And these types of hits can happen on average around 200, 300 times in a youth football plater, and much more than that in higher level players. So we're really concerned about those repetitive hits. 

New technology is changing the way coaches and athletic trainers keep players safe.

Teddy Nutting, the athletic trainer at Kennett High School, which is making efforts to reduce the number of concussions in their student athletes, says that the school now uses technology in helmets to detect potentially harmful hits. 

Nutting:

[The technology] measures the movement of the helmet, and if it is above 1 percent [impact threshold], the gives you an alert system...and that way, if you get those above-1 percent hits you can pull that person out and make sure to do an evaluation on that kid. 

Coaches and schools hope to balance sports culture with healthy practices going forward.

  Mike Atkins, director of athletics at Keene High School: 

We have to keep in mind the place of sports in our culture, and at the high school level, sports play a vital role in some of our kids' [lives], helping them find some level of success, helping them find out who they are. So with a sport like football, even where that is in our culture, you have to weigh the risk versus the acceptance of being an athlete...

We can't eliminate 100 percent of the risk...but I think we can put policies and procedures in place that make it as safe as possible.