As the 2012 NFL draft opens today, a group of sports medicine physicians have honored a doctor’s research into the effects of repeat concussions.
“Our research suggests that the cumulative effects of repeat concussions on brain function may be permanent,” researcher Dr. William Meehan told the 21st American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) annual meeting in Atlanta, Ga. Meehan was honored with the organization’s overall research award.
Meehan used mice as models for his research, seeking to discover how brain trauma affected a mouse’s ability to remember the location of a clear platform in a pool of water. His most notable results show that the shorter amount of time between concussions the higher the changes of long-term deficits a year after the injury.
The NFL, frequently under fire for management of head injuries, recently increased its oversight of concussions. Following an incident in which Browns quarterback Colt McCoy returned to the game after suffering a head injury, the NFL instituted a new policy. The league now requires that an independent trainer observe the games and alert team training staffs to possible head injuries. In the incident (see video), the Browns training staff said they had not seen the hit.
In the 2010 season, the NFL tightened its rules on helmet-to-helmet hits in an attempt to reduce the amount of concussions suffered by players. The league issued large fines to players, particularly repeat offenders, and said suspensions would be considered for those who continued to commit illegal hits.
The league has implemented more stringent return-to-play guidelines for players who suffer concussions, and each team must consult with an independent neurologist whenever there is a head injury. Referee Walt Anderson said medical experts laid out the effects of concussions to referees at a rules meeting earlier this year.
“It is such a big point of emphasis, and it’s not a point of emphasis just to make it one,” Anderson said. “There is some really serious concern about the damage that’s done on impact and what happens to the brain.”
Meehan agrees with the practice of removing players from play until they are completely recovered from a concussion.
“Our current practice of removing athletes from play and allowing for complete recovery before returning them to additional risk likely reduces the effects of repeat concussions on brain function,” Meehan said.
The long-term implications of concussions in sports are both personal and professional, experts say. Retired Atlanta Falcons football star Ray Easterling recently killed himself after years of depression believed to be linked to head injuries suffered during his career.
More than 100,000 concussions a year occur in the NFL, according to ESPN’s Sport Science. Helmet-to-helmet hits can occur with up to 100 g’s of force.
Concussion management is a critical and controversial aspect of sports medicine, according to the AMSSM. Concussions are common, underreported, and often occur in young, healthy individuals. Symptoms include headache, memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and poor balance.
A recent Examiner report showed that “most players who sustain concussions are high school kids who will never have a college or professional career,” according to expert Dr. Steven Broglio.
“An average high school player takes roughly 650 impacts, with a maximum of more than 2,000 per football season. A concussion occurs at roughly 90 to 100 g-force, which equates to smashing your skull against a wall at 20 mph,” Broglio said.