Friday, October 17, 2014

Tackling the Topic of Safety and Football

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 data." 

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 junction.

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,

Dr. Chad

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