*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on StudyFinds.
With kids finally starting to get back outside to play and join team sports again, a new study may give parents new worries about signing their children up for things like football or soccer. Researchers from Wake Forest School of Medicine say head impacts aren’t just a concern in the NFL, they can be just as serious for youngsters too. Their findings reveal even non-serious head impacts can change a child’s brain for years to come.
Brain scans reveal microscopic abnormalities among youth football players, with the cumulative effect potentially leading to harm after just one season. Previous studies have led to scientists calling for youth soccer programs to ban heading, or hitting the ball with your skull. For football programs, these findings have led to stricter enforcement of concussion protocols.
“Although we need more studies to fully understand what the measured changes mean, from a public health perspective, it is motivation to further reduce head impact drills used during practice in youth football,” said lead author Dr. Jillian Urban in a university release.
Study authors based their recommendations on 3D images of the brain’s white matter, which controls learning and coordination. The team identified “abnormal voxels” in brain scans of several young football players. These changes were absent in their peers playing non-contact sports like swimming and tennis.
The 47 football players, all under 19 years old, played the sport for a variety of teams for two or more consecutive years between 2012 and 2017. All wore football helmets fitted with a special sensor that records head impacts during both practice and actual games. In just one season, youth football players sustained between 26 and 1,003 head impacts. High school players took between 129 and 1,258 hits to the helmet.
Dr. Urban says, fortunately, most of these impacts don’t result in a concussion. In fact, most non-concussive impacts do not produce any acute signs or symptoms of a concussion — a blow that shakes the brain inside the skull. However, a closer analysis of 19 of these players identified changes to their brains after taking minor hits to the head.
Study authors say the amount of head impact exposure an athlete experiences, particularly in training, connects with the amount of change in their neuro-imaging results. Dr. Urban and her colleagues are now backing efforts to reduce the frequency of head contact in youth sports. They believe it will protect participants from brain abnormalities that can develop in as little as one season.