Football High: Small Hits Add Up

Research is showing that the accumulation of sub-concussive hits in sports like football can be just as damaging as one or two major concussions.

[shouting] >>[male voice over] Starting in 2009, scientists at Purdue University put sensors into the helmets of 2 high school football teams. [shouting] The sensors measured every impact the athletes took over the course of a season. [shouting] [Tom Talavage, Assoc. Professor, Purdue Univ.] The original intent for this study was to study concussions. But we didn't experience any concussions for quite a few weeks, so we decided we would start bringing in some of our players who had not experienced concussions to just begin to understand whether or not there were any consequences from the blows that they were getting to their head. [male speaking in background] To the researchers' surprise, neurological tests revealed that players who had never reported symptoms of a concussion had suffered significant damage to their memories. [male] You know what to do—this is the letters test, 0 back, 1 back, and 2 back. [Talavage] What we're finding is that these subconcussive blows— these blows that do not result in overt symptoms has the risk of impairing your abilities. [male voice over] Half of the athletes with no reported concussions performed increasingly worse on cognitive tests as the season wore on. [Talavage] In the very simple task of, "Does this letter match the one that I was just shown?" their brain simply couldn't do the tasks as well. [David Epstein, Staff Writer, Sports Illustrated] That's a new part of the story and that's a little frightening, where we're saying—look, the best predictor of the cognitive impairment in that study group—in that high school group— was not concussions, it was the number of hits that they were taking. It's starting to look a little bit more like the daily wear and tear in football on the brain might be looking a little more akin to the daily wear and tear of the rotator cuff in someone who pitches, where it's not a single blowout event, but there might be some repetitive damage over time. [Chris Nowinski, Boston Univ. School of Medicine] The sensors in helmets find that high school kids take more force to the brain than college kids. And the reality is we know from the literature that the young developing brain is far more vulnerable to this trauma. [Ann McKee, M.D., Dir., New England VA Neuropathology Lab] How do you change the game so that you're not getting all these small little hits that don't rise to the level of concussion? That's sort of the nature of the game. That's how it's being played. Every time we line up, even in a practice, that's what's happening. So, we're going to have to make dramatic changes or we don't change the face of this disease.
Posted on BrainLine December 10, 2013.

Excerpted from the documentary "Football High." Used with permission from Frontline, PBS. www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline.