A new study published in the Journal of Athletic Training could have a profound impact on how high school programs plan their practice schedules, and how they can alter traditional plans to limit their athletes’ exposure to head injuries.
According to the study titled “Football Players’ Head-Impact Exposure After Limiting of Full-Contact Practices,” head impact of football players decreased by 42 percent when their teams limited full contact practices to twice per week. The decline was traced across all positions on the football field, though linemen were adjudged to receive the most significant benefit from the change, with a 45 percent reduction in practices. Receivers, cornerbacks and safeties benefitted from the second-largest improvement in incidents, with a 40 percent decline.
The study was commissioned to align with the rule change limiting the number of full contact practices in the state of Michigan in 2014. The change meant that the state’s head trauma data from 2013 was reflective of an unlimited full contact practice regimen compared with the two sessions per week in 2014. The data was collected from a single school which did not have any coaching changes between years, minimizing the variables that could undermine the study’s findings.
For those who might point to the study as a panacea for concussive head issues, the study’s authors did send a word of caution:
Even in light of the head-impact exposure decline we report, the evidence surrounding long-term cognitive health as related to head impacts remains inconclusive. In a large study of cognitive function in high school athletes with or without a concussion history, no differences in Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) test performance were noted, although reports of increased symptoms were correlated with concussion history. These results are similar to those using computer-based measures among collegiate and high school and amateur athletes. Traditional pencil-and-paper batteries in soccer athletes provided similar results. In addition, an investigation of former high school football athletes demonstrated no increased risk for dementia, Parkinson disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis when compared with band, glee club, and choir members of similar ages and in similar geographic areas.
So, according to the NATA, there was no immediate proof of the long term effects of increased head trauma. That won’t convince anyone that head trauma isn’t a bad thing, but it might put the brakes on the hope of some administrators that the rise of concussion and head trauma-related stories in recent years will abate as soon as full contact practices are limited nationwide.