Concussions Down in NFL, but work Still to Do

     It seems the NFL may have finally begun to fix one of its biggest problems- the growing number of head injuries, especially concussions, occurring in the league. The NFL stated that the rate of concussions fell 25 percent during the 2014 season, and 36 percent over the last three seasons.

     Concussions are traumatic brain injuries triggered by strong blows to the head or shaking of the body. Annually, there are an estimated 1.6-3.8 million concussions in the United States, and the chances of getting one are largely increased in athletes. The NFL has been notorious for its high risk of receiving concussions due to all the hard hits in the game, and a culture of players failing to self-report these injuries, instead putting themselves at greater personal risk not to jeopardize the team as a whole.
     The statistics reflect a change in both the rules of the league and the mentality of its players. The NFL donates tens of millions of dollars every year towards medical research, hoping to find new information about how to reduce risk of concussions, identify concussed players, and understand the long term effects of these head injuries. Recent rule changes preventing helmet to helmet hits and hits on defenseless receivers have contributed to the lower concussion numbers, as the rate of concussion by helmet to helmet hits have fallen nearly 50 percent over the last two years.

     Additionally, players are seeing the effects concussions can have on the body and are changing the way they tackle to prevent the risk of injuries. Players have largely reduced tackling the upper body of opponents and are now shifting their mentalities to aiming for players’ legs.

     Players are also becoming increasingly aware that once someone is diagnosed with a concussion, their risk for future concussions is significantly magnified. Wes Welker, once one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, sustained three concussions over the past two seasons, and is now struggling to find work. It seems teams are becoming scared of signing players with concussions in fear of the risk of future injury which would hurt both the player and the team.

     In 2013, the NFL reached a 765-million dollar settlement, agreeing to compensate former players for brain related issues they were facing later in life, in addition to paying their medical bills and agreeing to fund more research. This agreement came after over 4,500 retired players sued the league over various problems including dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s- all of which they believed were due to their experiences in the league.

     While the reduced concussions numbers show that a number of factors have increased player safety recently, at least in this area, there still remains work to be done. Last season saw 111 concussions, and many of these could still be prevented if the NFL made a simple change.

     Currently, NFL players do not have their helmets fitted, meaning that many of them may be wearing helmets too big for their heads in every single game. These helmets provide less protection and are easier to knock off, which could lead to a higher risk of injury. Also, helmets could provide more padding in an effort to further improve player safety. While football at the high school, college, and professional levels are trying to reduce injury risk and identify potential concussions by forcing players who lose their helmets on a play to sit out a play before returning to the game, that does nothing to address the issue of the helmets themselves.

     Outside of the NFL, studies consistently report that high school and college students experience higher concussion rates than that of NFL players. Additionally, high school concussions rates are on the rise, and not only in football, but all sports.

     There are a number of reasons for this. One clear cause is that medical staffs are far larger and more experienced at the professional level, and thus are better at diagnosing and treating concussions. The effects of this are seen in the large numbers of concussions believed to go unreported, with estimates ranging between 50 and 80 percent of all potential concussions. While these numbers are declining with more concussions being reported (which could very well contribute to these rising concussion numbers), still far too many athletes seem to believe they should continue playing even when they have clear symptoms such as dizziness and headaches. Medical personnel need to take concussion symptoms and risks more seriously, and try to identify concussions quickly, just as the NFL has done with their new “eye in the sky” medical staff, trained personnel viewing the games from above in attempts to identify injured players.

     As previously stated, education is vital towards progress in this area. All football players whether be youth or professional, and all athletes for that matter, need to be educated in the causes, symptoms, and long term effects of concussions. If that can be accomplished, the sports world as a whole will take a huge step towards lowering these seemingly mild but potentially very severe injuries.  After all, while football gets criticized most for its concussions, many sports including soccer, hockey, and lacrosse also feature high injury risks.

     While the job of minimizing concussions risks is far from over in the NFL, numbers over the past few years are encouraging and show work is being done in the sport, which can hopefully transfer to the rest of athletics in the years to come.

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