Spike in football-related catastrophic brain injury cases causes concern in US


US researchers based at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill say that the incidence of catastrophic brain injury among US football players is rising – especially among children in high school.

brain head trauma

The team from the UNC-based National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research looked at data which they had collected relating to permanent disability and catastrophic brain injury resulting from full contact football matches.

The centre defines catastrophic injury as “injuries that resulted in brain or spinal cord injury or skull or spine fracture, which involved some disability at the time of the accident”.

The number of football-related brain injuries resulting in permanent disability had remained in single figures since 1984, until a sudden spike, with 10 injuries reported in 2008 and 2009 and 13 in 2011. The figures are the highest since the centre started collecting annual records on catastrophic brain injury data 48 years’ ago.

The records also include data on fatalities in football games and the centre has been credited with reducing the number of fatal injuries sustained in full contact football.

Since 1977, around 67% of football-related catastrophic injuries have been incurred as football players tackled each other for the ball. Although head-to-head contact was banned in US football in 1976, some tackles still involve this – tackles which involve initial head contact can cause fractures to the spine as well as catastrophic brain injury.

Some players may recover, while other will be left permanently disabled, with varying degrees of paralysis or mental impairment through brain damage.

The researchers have called the rise in catastrophic brain injuries in US football alarming – and say that coaches and trainers should do more to teach the fundamentals of the sport to avoid serious and permanent injuries and even death.

However, more awareness of the issue may also have resulted in more reporting of catastrophic brain injury in football. The researchers added that coaches need to be more aware of symptoms of concussion, which include nausea, dizziness, headaches and sensitivity to light, as well as loss of consciousness.

Lead author of the report and director of the centre and professor emeritus of exercise and sports science in the College of Arts and Sciences, Fred Mueller, said:

“These 2011 numbers are the highest since we began collecting catastrophic brain injury data. This is a major problem."

“We have to continue research in this area – accurate data not only indicate problem spots, but they also help us offer appropriate precautions and reveal the adequacy of our preventive measures.”

The centre’s work is funded by The National Collegiate Athletic Association, National Federation of State High School Associations and the American Football Coaches Association.

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