Tracking the Impact: Football Concussions in the Youngest Players

Nov 5, 2015

Credit (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb, File)

We’ve heard a lot about the problem of concussions in ‘pro’ and college football. But most football players in the U.S. are kids… 3 million of them play ‘Pop Warner’ youth football every year.

No one has examined the effect all those hits to the head have on them until now. Scientists at Virginia Tech are leading a team tracking the impact of this favorite contact sport on its youngest players.

It’s after dark at the practice field at the Blacksburg recreation center where 9 and 10 year old boys are running football drills under the lights.

“Are you OK?  Bad reaction? Could I sit out for a couple of rounds?  Yes you may.  Are you going to make it?

Each player is wearing a special helmet that measures and transmits the force of each impact to their heads.

This as you can see here is an acceleration curve from an impact to the head Eamon Campolettanoa, a graduate student in bio-medical engineering, records the force of each head bump.

“So this happened, I guess 3 minutes ago and it tells me what player it happened to it tells me some basic metrics that we’re interested in looking at the linear rotation acceleration, that yellow dot on the head form there tells me where it occurred on the player.”

Before the season started, these young football players took a series of computer tests to gage their cognitive functions. Things like memory, pattern matching, as well as balance.

Prof Stefan Duma & Eamon Campolettanoa recording concussion data.

A few parents are here watching practice. One, Eric Gilmore says he was concerned about the whole head injury thing…

“Yes I was, but I gave into his desire to play. I didn’t want him to play but he wanted to play so I said OK.  I’m still a little, you know, hesitant, but you just hope for the best.”

Stefan Duma Heads the Virginia Tech/Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering that’s leading this concussion study

“Most people are very surprised to realize there’s a lot of concussions in automobile accidents, a huge number of concussions, so it’s not just football, it’s not just sports. There are a lot of concussions in bicycle accidents. Bicycles dominate this space in terms of brain injury.  I always tell parents, if you really want to look at this holistically, sports are a small part of it.  You know, driving to and from sports has risk.  Everyone who has bicycle has risk so its’ really about understanding the risk, managing the injury the right way and reducing the risk where you can."

Duma is the expert in helmet safety. His team designed new football helmets for pro and college players that all the companies now manufacture.  They’re also working on hockey helmets now and will soon move on to biking and other sports.

Again Eamon Campolettanoa.

“Sport are such a formative experience in the American culture. Teamwork, things like that, are so valuable in later life. So you can’t just wrap kids in bubble wrap and tell them that they can’t play or have fun. So trying to contain and minimize it is the only way to go about it."

Campolettanoa says a pilot study a few years ago at VT led to some rule changes in youth football, cutting the number contact practices and eliminating what was called the Oklahoma drill where players would run a each other, now they tackle a dummy and learn to lead with their shoulders, not their heads.

Still, says Stefan Duma, “if you’re playing football you know you’re eventually you’re going to have a head impact. If you’re playing hockey, you know eventually you’re going to fall and hit the ice or the boards."

And he says, It’s not like this study is asking young kids to play the game .

"But by doing the study, we’ll understand a lot more about that injury had we not been doing the study. So we’ll actually have the head acceleration traces for those impacts also the ones that lead up to it. So the study allows us to investigate kids who are doing what they would have normally done, but now we’ll (soon) have a real understanding of it."

Football teams in North Carolina and Rhode Island are also part of this first ever, longitudinal study on football’s youngest players. They’re all wearing the special helmets and they’ll be tested before and after every season for the next four years to check for cognitive changes. And if safety isn’t the first thing on their minds right now, this groundbreaking study they’re part of is sure to have an impact on our understanding of how concussion affects the brain and what could be done about it.