Reducing full-contact grid practices may lower concussion risk
Limiting full contact in high school football practices, both in season and in the offseason, could help reduce the risk of concussions, according to a brain-injury expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
“There is still so much we don’t know about the brain and damage caused by concussions,” says neuropsychologist Dr. Munro Cullum. “Anything that decreases the potential for injury to a young person’s brain is a step in the right direction, though we should take these steps carefully and make sure they’re based on informed decisions and good science.”
Nineteen states already have banned full-contact practices in the offseason for high school teams. Texas is considering placing limits on the amount of contact allowed during the season.
In May, the medical committee that advises the governing body for Texas high school athletics unanimously recommended limiting full-contact, game-speed practices to 90 minutes a week. There currently are limits on the amount of practice time, but no rules dictating how much contact is allowed.
But limiting full-contact practices also could have unintended effects and will require additional study, Dr. Cullum says.
“In theory, reducing the number of full-contact practices should also reduce the number of hits and concussions,” he says. “It’s also possible, however, that with fewer contact opportunities, games could result in more concussions because players aren’t as used to hitting or want to hit harder to prove themselves in less time.”
The Ivy League and the National Football League both restrict full-contact practices. In addition, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted guidelines mandating that a player suspected of having a head injury must be removed from play or practice immediately and receive clearance from a team physician and an independent neurological consultant before returning to action.
Dr. Cullum, a head-injury consultant for teams in the NFL and the National Hockey League, recently was senior author of a study in the journal JAMA Neurology that found a heightened incidence of cognitive deficits and depression among retired NFL players.
“It’s possible that some athletes who suffer brain injuries today could be vulnerable to cognitive problems later in life,” Dr. Cullum says. “Severe head injuries, for example, have been identified as a potential risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease in some cases, although we don’t know much about the possible implications of milder injuries or who may be at risk for what down the road.”
Between 1.6 million and 3.8 million athletes in the U.S. sustain a concussion each year, according to the American Academy of Neurology. The concussion risk is greatest in football for young men and in soccer and basketball for young women.
Visit www.utswmedicine.org/conditions-specialties/neurosciences to learn more about UT Southwestern’s clinical neuroscience services.
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