How can we improve the way sports handle brain injuries? First and foremost, recognizing a head injury and then being respectful about healing time and getting enough rest after a head injury.
Most importantly, it is essential to identify when a concussion occurs, which may or may not involve a loss of consciousness. This impact does not need to involve a significant injury. Symptoms may be more mild including seeing stars, not feeling right, feeling dizzy or “getting your bell rung”. If this occurs, the individual promptly needs to be evaluated by a medical profession and removed from play until they are cleared. As a community, society, and culture we must learn to acknowledge and manage head injuries safely no matter the severity or noticeable impairment. Patience comes into play for the coaches, teammates, family, patient and medical team. It requires teamwork on all sides.
Having a proper helmet further strengthens head injury prevention. Young children are at greater risk for brain injury than adults in regard to acceleration force. Younger brains are not fully myelinated, which means this allows nerve fibers to tear more easily during injury. The weight of children’s brains is also less than the adult, enabling the brain to accelerate faster during impact within the skull. Additionally, children also have weaker neck muscles. By the age of five, the skull of a 5-year-old has reached about 90 % of an adult skull diameter. A “bobblehead doll effect” can result, placing children more at risk for injury.
Delaying introduction of contact in sports, and having age appropriate rules, are other measures to assure safer sports. Athletes who have longer careers in contact or collision sports endure a greater amount of subconcussive impacts. By delaying introduction, we can limit an athlete’s exposure risk.
Also, it is important to eliminate contact in sports, when unnecessary. Hit Counting devices have shown that in many sports, head impacts occur mostly during practice. If we can modify drills and practice structure thereby reducing contact when unnecessary, we can pare down harmful opportunities of subconcussive hits in sports without changing gameplay.
Lastly, modifying contact where appropriate. In some sports, necessary practice contact helps protect the athlete and their opponents from serious injury. Limiting the repetitions to reach certain learning points is a productive way to prevent needless injury. A thoughtful framework of practices and drills can go a long way!
We are all for healthy, active engagement, but it is of great service to look at the risk factors and reduce them.