Throw a Yellow Flag on Football-related Head Injuries, Warns the Harvard Mental Health Letter

Young football players may shrug off head (and body) blows as "part of the game," but players who sustain a series of even small head bumps may be at increased risk of long-term brain damage.

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You don't have to be a pro football player to suffer the long-term consequences of brain injuries.

Boston (Vocus) November 19, 2009

Young football players may shrug off head (and body) blows as "part of the game." But players who sustain a series of even small head bumps may be at increased risk of long-term brain damage, according to the editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. In an upcoming issue of the newsletter, Dr. Michael C. Miller urges parents to be aware of the risks.

A Congressional hearing in October called attention to the long-term effects of head injury in professional football. During the hearing, the commissioner of the National Football League pointed out that more than 4 million children play football for their school teams or in organized programs, some beginning as young as age 6.

Head blows can be dangerous at any age. Upon impact, the brain accelerates very quickly inside the head, then decelerates just as quickly as it bangs into the skull. Nerve cells stretch, fraying connections between nerve cells. All of this causes a short-term disturbance in brain structure and function. And if two severe head injuries occur in a short span of time--sometimes called "second-impact syndrome"--the outcome can be catastrophic, with brain swelling and death.

Perhaps less well-known are the problems caused by repeated smaller impacts over time, even those not severe enough to cause concussion. These increase the risk for a variety of problems later in life, including depression, poor motivation and concentration, and difficulty with learning and memory.

Professional football players are at particular risk because the typical player--over the course of a high school, college, and pro career--will encounter thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hits to the head. Many experts now believe this increases the chance of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of brain damage common among boxers.

But you don't have to be a pro player to suffer the long-term consequences of brain injuries. Unless adults consider the sport's inherent dangers to the head, many children will suffer brain damage that can be life-changing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Dr. Miller recommends that parents, players, and coaches pay more attention to protecting brains of all ages from repeated bumps and head injuries. Given the popularity of the sport, NFL leaders are in a special position to take a prominent role in promoting brain health. They could establish safety guidelines at the professional level that no doubt would be emulated by college, high school, and youth programs--something, in other words, that players of all ages could run with.

The Harvard Mental Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $59 per year. Subscribe at http://www.health.harvard.edu/mental or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Raquel Schott at Raquel_Schott(at)hms.harvard(dot)edu for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.

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