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After decades of progress in reducing high school football deaths related to traumatic brain injury, a recent study shows the statistic is on the rise. But one study may have a solution: better face masks.
Every once in a while a high school athlete dies because of a blow taken on the football field. When it comes to fatal football accidents, even one is too many. That’s why a study showing a recent increase in TBI-related deaths is concerning.
Kristen Kucera and her team at the University of North Carolina recently released a study through the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention updating the statistics on football TBI injuries. The researcher team there has been gathering data on high school and college football deaths and injuries since 1965. The update, which covers 2005 through 2014, reveals that two dozen high schoolers were killed as a result of traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries on the football field. Another four were in college football.
The study showed that most of these deaths happened during games, rather than practices, and were connected to tackling or being tackled. They were most common in running backs and linebackers.
The number of TBI-related deaths has been going down steadily for decades. In the period 1965-1974 roughly four times as many student athletes died from head and spine injuries. The improvements are connected to advances in medical care and rules adopted throughout the years banning head-first tackling, as well as helmet safety standards.
But that trend seems to have reversed itself. The number of deaths fell from 1974 through the 1990s, but there has been a slight uptick since 2010. The change is concerning, but the cause remains unclear. One possibility is that there is simply more attention paid to concussions and better reporting. Kucera is not happy with the results. She said:
“We want to see these numbers going down.”
Bioengineer David Camarillo and his team at Stanford are working toward that goal. He has had football players wear mouth guards equipped with sensors to better record and track head movement after an impact. The information received from the mouth guards are then run through a simulation that shows which parts of the brain move the most.
Camarillo speculates that the direction of the impact can make a big difference in how much damage is caused. He believes that blows that cause the head to snap quickly from ear to ear or glancing blows that cause violent rotation or twisting may be the worst. Modern face masks can actually increase this twisting force, suggesting they aren’t very good at preventing concussions or other TBIs. Camarillo hopes the results from his study will cause a new wave of helmet design that will drop head injury statistics even lower.