Football and fall go hand in hand for many people. Whether they are going to the games, watching on TV or running their own fantasy teams, football fans dread seeing their favorite player on the weekly injury report.
Just as football and fall go together, unfortunately, so do football and traumatic brain injury (TBI). In 2022, the NFL reported an 18% increase in concussions during regular season games from 2021. Each year, the numbers keep getting higher.
Our brains are injured during impact in part because there is space between our head and brain. A hard hit or bump to the head can cause our brain to jostle around, damaging brain cells. (Fun fact: Woodpeckers bang their head about12,000 times a day and never get concussions.)
“Football, and other sports that have a high number of collisions, can result in injury to the brain due to the rapid change in momentum. Think along the lines of: An object at rest stays at rest,” said Katie Anne Fopiano, a doctoral candidate at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University who studies the microvasculature’s role in the development of cardiovascular and cerebral diseases. “Multiple head traumas occurring over time can actually cause a protein that appears in Alzheimer’s disease to build up in the brain. These athletes can develop brain injury from the impact and head trauma they experience and have a higher chance of experiencing dementia from repetitive impacts.”
This season, a new football helmet that offers better protection to quarterbacks, may help curb the concussion rate in NFL players. The helmet protects the top of the head to reduce direct impact on the brain during a hit. During a summer mandate in which certain football positions were required to use the new equipment, the league reported a 50% drop in concussions.
While this is good news for professional football players, it’s too soon to know if these protective measures will be enough to reduce the potential long-term health risks associated with TBI. In autopsy studies, hundreds of former NFL players have been found to develop a degenerative condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE, which leads to memory loss, depression and dementia.
Even though NFL players are no longer required to use the newer helmet, an estimated 200 of them are still wearing it this fall. That could be a real game-changer.