Dr. Alex Powers is a neurosurgeon who works for Wake Forest University. He's also an avid football fan. His research and his passion for the sport are often at odds because Powers is one of the leading physicians exploring the topic of brain trauma as it relates to his favorite sport. Labor Day weekend 2014 was a classic example of his plight. He was in the lab, examining the charts of high school football players the week prior and then flew out with his two sons - both youth players - for a family vacation on the west coast to see the Oregon Ducks play on Saturday and the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
I can appreciate that.
As many of you know, I am a huge football fan. Saturdays during the fall are dedicated to
the game. My daughter, just two years
old, already proudly states on a daily basis, “GO IRISH!” (in reference to my
long-time favorite team, Notre Dame). I
even have a yearly tradition of attending college games. All the while, I’ve read a lot of the
research about head injuries and their long-term implications on football
players. Much like Powers, I just have
to flip the switch on game days. At
times, it feels similar to knowing all of the ill-effects of smoking and still
advocating the use of cigarettes. It’s a
contradiction that leaves me feeling uneasy.
According to Dr. Powers’ data, a single season of high
school football does potentially irreversible damage to the brain in proportion
to the severity and number of hits taken.
Basically, he concludes that the brain changes shape and the white
matter, which allows for the intercommunication between parts of the brain, is
what is specifically damaged. His stance
has created widespread panic. Shawn
Springs, a former Pro Bowl NFL player and the co-founder of a company that
designs football helmets with greater safety measures, has told Powers that his
research is going "to scare everyone to death...and kill football." Doctors and researchers have told Powers, “You
have to kill the game. There's no way, as a physician, that you can condone the
All of us that have any interest in the game – parents,
coaches, players, doctors, researchers, etc. – are being forced to evaluate our
position and form an updated opinion based on the data that has become
available. "I was totally naive
about it,” Dr. Powers said. “I thought
people would see the data and say, ‘This is awesome. No one has ever looked at
it this way.’” The fact of the matter is
that people should be looking at the data like never before. We have to.
From the Upper
Cervical perspective, any repetitive trauma to the head and neck is
bad. The body was built to be
well-protected against trauma, but not repetitive trauma. My problem with the sport has more to do with
the impact that the hits, the tackles, and the falls have on the upper neck,
particularly the top bone in the neck because it’s not designed so much for
stability as it is for mobility. Being
held in place only by muscle puts the top bone at a fundamental disadvantage to
withstanding the impact of traumas.
Without the stability of an interlocking joint or bony lock, the top
bone is very vulnerable to misalignment.
Remember that the brainstem – the part of your body responsible for
regulating your organs, muscles, and tissues (even intercommunication between
the brain) – rests in the ring of that bone.
The head and neck protect your life line. Helmets can’t protect that vital head-neck
Dr. Powers is hoping to make the game safer by directing
his studies toward the high school level, thus creating a safer game in college
and the pros as a by-product. I plan on
reaching out to Dr. Powers and trying to add a new wrinkle to his
research. What if we ensured that the kids
enduring the trauma were strong enough to withstand it without the adverse effects? A body that is balanced/structurally sound
from an early age would be more capable of absorbing the same traumas than an
out-of-balance counterpart. I suggest we
keep in-check the structural integrity and balance of these young athletes and
see if that changes the outcomes. As of
now, given the sheer number of traumas that occur between birth and the fifth
year of life, plus the other traumas that occur at school ages, we don’t know
for sure that the kids in the study aren’t already weaker. We ought to know.
Frankly, this is a scary topic. There is not a time in your life when your
body is more vulnerable to the effects of trauma than during youth, yet that is
the time that kids start playing football.
We have to look beyond the obvious, here. The effects of trauma from football include
more than just hospital visits, broken bones, dislocations, and
concussions. This entire discussion is
based not on black and white injuries, but on the shades of gray effects that
often do not become noticeable until much later – headaches, pain,
degeneration/arthritis, memory loss, lack of focus/concentration on the surface
layer; and, bearing in mind what the brain and brainstem do for your body, the
connection to heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders.
As much as I love football, if you asked me – as a parent
– “Would I be OK with my child playing,” my answer would probably be “No.” Imagine building a home on a tiny island in
the middle of the most common area in the world to be affected by hurricanes. Even if you constructed the sturdiest little
house on the planet, why would you voluntarily build it in a place where you
knew – for a fact – that it was going to be subject to high winds and flying
debris for four months per year? Why
would I let my kid do the equivalent?
I’m not sure I could overcome that thought.
Thinking good things for you, as always,