Is Football Too Dangerous? Parents and Athletes Weigh the Risk of Head Trauma

All-star rookie and 49ers linebacker Chris Borland shocked the football world recently after announcing his early retirement due to fears concerning the dangers of serious neurological injury and disability resulting from football-related concussions. Borland, 24, determined after consulting with concussion researchers, as well as engaging in his own study of the relationship between football and neurodegenerative diseases, that the game was simply not worth the risk. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland said. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

The decision was announced in the midst of concerns generated by the 70+ former football players who were diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases following their deaths, as well as a wealth of studies drawing a correlation between the repeated head trauma oftentimes experienced by football players, and subsequent brain disease.  While Borland expressed assurance that he feels healthy at the moment, he acknowledges that the potentially devastating effects of brain injuries are not always immediately evident, and he has decided to quit the game before he experiences injuries that may endanger his well-being later down the road.

“I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me, it’s wanting to be proactive,” he said. “I’m concerned that if you wait ’til you have symptoms, it’s too late. … There are a lot of unknowns. I can’t claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”

Seriousness of concussions

As controversial as safety issue discussions surrounding the risk and effects of experiencing concussions in football may be, one thing ought to be made crystal clear: Concussions, by their very nature, are serious. Early recognition and treatment of a concussion is particularly important in light of the frequent absence of symptoms exhibited by those who experience such an injury.  

Indeed, loss of consciousness occurs in only 1 out of every 10 individuals who experience a concussion. In fact, commonly used brain scan technology such as MRIs and CAT scans, are unable to detect concussions. Despite the potential absence of immediate symptoms, cellular and chemical changes occur in the brain when concussed that make it vulnerable to further injury if opportunity is not given for the brain to heal appropriately.   

Increasing risk & symptoms

In fact, it is within the 10 days following a concussion that the risk of experiencing a second (and potentially more severe) concussion is the greatest. This risk is exacerbated, not only by the chemical and cellular changes undergone by the brain, but especially within the context of sports activities, by delayed reaction time which can result as an immediate effect of the concussion. Concussions are the result of blunt impact or violent jerking of the head causing the brain to hit one of the sides of the skull. Instead of being directly observable by brain scans, concussions can be diagnosed both by self-report of symptoms by the athlete or by an observer. The athlete may experience nausea, vomiting, headache, vision problems, confusion, sensitivity to noise or light, grogginess, sluggishness or difficulty with memory or concentration.   

Fortunately, symptoms of a concussion resolve completely in 90% of individuals. Nevertheless, even mild concussions may have serious effects. In one study, approximately 10-20% of children exhibit intense onset of symptoms, and persistence of noticeable symptoms, for up to a year following their injury. This was particularly the case of children who had lost consciousness as a result of their concussion. The researchers found that these children were more likely than others with concussions to exhibit a notable reduction of quality of life.   

Prevention

In light of the potential seriousness of the consequences of concussions, prevention of concussions, as well as identification of their symptoms, is of paramount importance for those involved in sports. This is truer of football than it is of most other sports, as it is the sport in which males are most likely to experience such injuries. Concussions primarily occur in football when players collide with, and tackle, other players. They can also result from even mild blows to the head. Those who exhibit symptoms of a concussion ought to be prohibited from finishing the game.  

While well-meant efforts have been made to develop equipment for protecting players, it is not clear that football helmet add-ons, in general, decrease the likelihood or severity of concussions. According to one study, spray treatments, fiber sheets, pads and soft-shell layers provide little or no protection from concussions. In fact, researchers deny that there are no effective means of notably reducing concussions in football players. Helmet Glide, for example, appears to exhibit no efficacy in protecting the brains of players. Furthermore, helmets with add-ons, such as Concussion Reduction Technology, Shockstrips and Guardian Cap, saw a reduction in angular accelerations, believed to be the primary source of concussion risk in football, by only 2%. Even football helmets themselves, in one study, were found to reduce concussions by only 20%.  

Is football worth the risk? That ultimately depends upon the individual. It is clear, however, that there is a great deal of work to be done in improving prevention of potentially debilitating brain injuries. Until significant advances are made in protecting athletes from concussions, football players will have to continue to accept the possibility of potentially irreversible brain damage.