While more retired N.F.L. players continue to announce they have (or had) progressive neurodegenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the N.F.L. playoffs have started.
Gregory D. Myer, director of research in sports medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centers believes that what we all need to look at is prevention instead of damage control. There is lots of room for the brain to rattle around in the skull – getting bruised. And, not just with every collision, but with every stop and start. It’s sometimes described as “brain slosh.” For athletes in contact sports, brain slosh has been seen as unavoidable.
Myer points out that at the National Conference on Youth Sports Safety in Washington in November, most of the approaches discussed in dealing with concussion were almost entirely focused on post-concussion management. Says Meyer, “The well-intentioned legislation currently under consideration in Congress is also too reactive. It should emphasize the critical role of primary prevention.”
Studies appearing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics found that newer helmets don’t seem to make much of a difference. Myer suggests we consider how we would ship fragile porcelain. Would we use steel or titanium containers, or Bubble Wrap? The same principle applies when protecting the brain. Helmets prevent skull fractures and lacerations, but they don’t reduce concussions. He thinks a “Bubble Wrap Effect” during play for athletes would make more sense.
Interestingly, a study at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that high school football players who played at higher altitudes sustained a 30% reduction in total concussion incidence. The researchers believe that higher altitude increased the volume in the cerebral venous system, a natural Bubble Wrap that encases the brain.
The Cincinnati researchers believe there are also biomechanics in nature worth looking at for today’s athletes.
Why do woodpeckers who hit their heads against trees thousands of times a day, and bighorn sheep who ram their heads into each other never sustain concussions, wondered the researchers. Their analysis suggests that woodpeckers’ and bighorns’ brains are naturally protected with mechanisms that slow the return of blood from the head to the body – increasing blood volume that fills their brains’ vascular “tree”, creating the Bubble Wrap effect.
While more people are thinking twice about letting their kids and teens play contact sports, there are many who want to keep the tradition of Friday Night Football intact at their local high school. Maybe the future of college and professional football will change if more athletes decide it’s too risky for them cognitively… it is voluntary if they play or not, right? Is it possible that at some point, there won’t be enough players for the fans to watch a game? At least there is more conversation about it. Myer’s take on it is that, “the winning strategies for defeating the concussion crisis may come from research focused on recreating the safe biomechanics already in use in the animal kingdom.” In the meantime though, too many people are hurting their brains……. nytimes.com 1/2/2014