With the start of the NFL season just around the corner, fans across the globe are gearing up (literally). Fans are customizing their fantasy leagues and upgrading their TV sports packages so that they won’t miss a game. While the game continues to grow in popularity, there is one major issue that puts the future of the game at risk – concussions. Many people think that better helmets or other equipment will help make football safer, however, it seems that technique is what will make the difference.
Recently the NFL has been implementing new rules and protocols to make football safer, but the concussions are still adding up. The number of concussions in 2015 was a 32 percent increase from the year before. For years researchers have known there is a clear link between the repeated brain injury and the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It wasn’t until March of this year that an NFL executive finally admitted that football is linked to brain damage.
Traumatic brain injuries are not new to football by any means. Skull fractures, concussions, and neck injuries caused many injuries and deaths prior to the common use of leather helmets in collegiate games in the 1920s. By 1939, football helmet manufacturers started using plastic instead of leather, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that we had the “modern” football helmet.
Even with the various new safety features implemented in the helmets, concussions still happen very often. Here are some fast facts about concussions:
We don’t actually know how many concussions actually occur
Many concussions are not reported. The NFL gathered data from 1996 to 2001 in an attempt to study the long-term effects of a concussion. The league reported a total of 887 concussions during that time. However, the New York Times found that at least 100 concussions were left out.
Not all concussions are reported. In 2013, PBS did a study and found that one-third of all concussions are not included in the NFL injury report. They found that if these injuries occurred during training camp, bye weeks, or after the final game of the regular season, they were typically not reported. Without knowing the full extent of the problem, it makes it that much harder to find a solution.
Almost half of players with concussions don’t miss a game
During the PBS study, they found that 49.5 percent of players that suffered a concussion between 2012-2013 returned to playing without missing a full game. In 2013, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) reported: “the risk for another concussion may be greatest within ten days after a first one”. The more concussions players experience, the more likely they will experience long-term effects.
Retired former players have sued the NFL
In April of this year, there was an approved billion-dollar class action settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players. This will help to cover players suffering from ALS, dementia, or other neurological disorder that may result from concussions. While this has been a win for the players, now the NFL may never have to admit what they actually knew about the risk of concussions in the past.
Taking a Different Approach to Make Football Safer
To help curb head injuries, the NFL backed a USA Football youth program called Heads Up. Because it had the NFL name, many jumped on and supported the program, getting certified and teaching children new tackle techniques. While the program reported that they helped to reduce concussions and injuries, the data did not support USA Football’s statement.
Safe Football: Focusing on Technique
Former Arizona State University and NFL lineman Scott Peters founded Safe Football in 2012. His program greatly differs from USA Football’s Heads Up, which only focused on tackling. Safe Football takes a different approach to training. On the about page of the site, it states:
“With no cures for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE, the only solution is prevention. We use techniques base on the latest advancement in biomechanics to teach players to remove the helmet as a tool for tackling.”
The program recognizes that rule changes, equipment upgrades, and concussion protocols only treat the symptoms of head injuries, not the cause. In their attempt to make football safer, they are training athletes to make football safer.
The program is prevention focused, performance-based and easy to use, which makes it appealing for all levels of football. Using techniques also found in martial arts and rugby, players are able to learn how to use their body in a safer manner and reduce the amount of head to head collisions.
University of Washington Clinic
The University of Washington was one of the first major organizations to implement this new type of training. Coaches, training staff, and players participated and the results were incredible. Not only did UW have the best offense in school history, they had zero concussions and zero stingers (cervical spine injuries) during the season, including spring football. This demonstrates that changing training techniques can help make football safer.
Since then, the Safe Football training has been implemented in over 200 high schools, eight NCAA Division 1 schools, and six NFL coaching staffs. Though many are adopting at the college and professional level, Peters wants to focus on the youth. By teaching these kids safe football techniques early, it will eventually become common knowledge, leading to fewer concussions and injuries.
How Can PTs Help Players After the Fact?
It is important to know that physical therapists cannot heal the brain. Only the body can heal the brain. So what can or should a PT do when a concussion does occur? How can a PT help make football safer for players that experience a concussion?
When a concussion happens, circulation to the brain is restricted, but in order for the brain to heal, more blood is required. When PTs understand how the brain acts with the body, they can help make sure athletes are fully healed before returning to the field. There are three areas they can focus on.
Dizziness and Balance
Athletes tend to have trouble balancing on one leg and focusing after suffering a concussion. To help athletes lessen these symptoms, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) recommends that a qualified vestibular physical therapist provide exercises to properly strain and train the vestibule-ocular reflexes (VOR). A reflex eye movement, VOR functions to stabilize eye gaze during head rotation.
Physical therapists can find out more about vestibular physical therapy and attend conferences or training by visiting the Vestibular Disorders Association (VEDA) site.
Concussions do not solely affect the brain. They often also result in neck trauma, which can cause headaches due to a constriction of blood vessels and nerves in the upper spine. To help reduce the effects of headaches and improve athletes’ focus, PTs can use some of the following techniques:
- Neck strengthening exercises
- Manual therapy
- Ultrasound therapy
- Electric stimulation
Monitoring Exercise Progression
Once a player is symptom-free, they should gradually return to physical activity. Before getting cleared to return, PTs should monitor exercise programs in an objective environment. Concussed athletes may be more apt to say they feel fine if coaches or other players are helping them recover. When PTs are able to help athletes get back to normal activity, they can ensure that players return to play in a safe manner.
Any physical therapist looking to learn more about what they can do for concussed players can read the APTA’s Guide to Concussions on their site.