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Little Blows to Head Add Up to Big Risk

Study Shows Brain Changes In High School Football Players
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 3, 2012 -- Small hits to the head may add up to injuries for high school football players, according to a new study by the Purdue Neurotrauma Group at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

The researchers suggest that the effects of blows to the head while playing football may last longer than previously thought. During this time, players' brains are vulnerable, so the blow that results in a concussion may be the "straw that broke the camel's back," the researchers write.

“Taking a large number of hits to the head is not good for you,” says study researcher Evan L. Breedlove, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Purdue.

And the high school players that Breedlove and his colleagues studied took a lot of such hits. After following about two dozen players over two seasons, they calculated that players received 200 to almost 1,900 head blows each season. They got these numbers from the special helmets that each participating player wore. Sensors inside the helmet cataloged the hits taken, the force of the impact, and the region of the head that was struck.

The players also underwent brain scans so that the researchers could compare the data from the helmets with the effect that each blow had on the players’ brains.

“It gave us a sense of how things changed throughout the season,” says Breedlove.

Over the course of the two seasons, six of the players suffered concussions, while the scans of 17 of the players showed changes in brain function that the researchers could tie to the hits on their heads.

Questions Raised by Study

It’s the first human study looking at the accumulation of sub-concussive blows and their effect on the brain, says Gerard Gioia, PhD, chief of pediatric neuropsychology and director of the Safe Concussion Outcome, Recovery, & Education (SCORE) Program at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“The study raises questions of whether we should be reducing the number of blows an individual takes,” says Gioia, who reviewed the study for WebMD.

As the study authors and Gioia point out, changes to the brain are not necessarily indicative of damage. More research will be needed to determine that.

“We are currently in a gray area of research when it comes to concussions,” says Gioia. “We’re still trying to understand the problem and translate it into education and prevention.”

No Clear Cut Answers for Parents

That puts parents in a difficult position, because there are no clear answers about the extent of the risks their child faces when he suits up for a football game.

“I have families who are constantly asking me about these things,” Gioia says. “We take the research we have and try to apply it to their kids as best we can, but we can only make educated guesses.”

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