Football and the Teenage Brain: Is the Offseason Long Enough?


Concussions are becoming more prevalent in football today. You can see in the news more and more high school players are becoming seriously injured or losing their lives due to concussions. If you are not familiar, a concussion is a brain injury that disrupts normal functioning of the brain. Recently, experts have told coaches, players, and parents that athletes should not return to play until a doctor evaluates them to see if a concussion is suspected.


New research shows that the brains of some football players who had the usual head hits associated with the sport, but did not have concussions, still had signs of mild brain injury six months after the season ended. This brings in to question if the off-season in football is enough time for the teenage brains to recover?


The Research


Findings have raised questions about whether head hits that do not result in concussions can still lead to neurological damage. Brain scans of high school football players taken before, during, and after the season have shown that players’ brains might not have fully recovered from repeated head hits. The Purdue Neurotrauma Group at Purdue University has been studying brain changes in high school football players since 2009, with research spanning six seasons.


The researchers used an imaging technique called proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H MRS) to study the brains of 25 high school football players and compared them to the brains of teenagers that participated in non-contact sports.

The 1H MRS data provides details about the blood flow, metabolism, and chemistry of the neurons and glial cells important for brain function.


The findings suggested that repeated head hits in football could cause changes in brain chemistry and metabolism, even in players that do not have a diagnosed concussion.

Researchers saw not only damaging effects to just the neurons, but also to the vasculature and glial cells in the brain. When looking at the brain scans between two and five months after the season, researchers also found that the majority of players still showed that their brain had not fully recovered.


Another interesting part of data the 1H MRS revealed was players had a hyper-metabolic response during the preseason, as though the brain was trying to heal connections impaired from the previous seasons. As a result, some of the players had no outward symptoms, but the researchers could see that the players’ brains were rewiring themselves to skip around the parts that were affected.


Additionally, researchers are finding that the more hits high school football players take, the more their brain chemistry changes, which leads to more change in the brain’s ability to move blood to the right location. Recent proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy studies are also arguing that the recommended two-week rest period for injury is not enough time for a full metabolic recovery after a concussion. Those who return to play and are not fully healed could experience another concussion with symptoms and metabolic changes with more lasting effects.


Future Research


Although studies have found exceptional results on brain recovery, certain studies have shown limitations with a small test group and very preliminary results. If further research is supported in future studies, one solution may be to take high school football players out of play when head hits reach a certain number, to protect their brains. Researchers are also working to develop a helmet that absorbs more energy than conventional helmets to better protect the brain.


Until more is known, athletes should pay attention to symptoms suggesting a concussion and get medical help if one is suspected by their doctor. Headaches, trouble with concentration, sensitivity to light or sound, and dizziness are common symptoms of a concussion high school players should look out for.


Parents and coaches need to be responsible for sensing the risks and dangers to their player’s health, on and off the field. Keeping players safe off the field is just as important as keeping them safe on the field. Protect yourself, your team, or your children with Clear Gear Sports Spray. Clear Gear is a disinfectant spray designed for athletes, to protect them from dangerous bacteria like MRSA.



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