Written by Dr. Mark
Referenced article: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/10/161024095801.htm
Researchers have found measurable brain changes in children after a single season of playing youth football, even without a concussion diagnosis, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology.
According to USA Football, there are approximately 3 million young athletes participating in organized tackle football across the country. Numerous reports have emerged in recent years about the possible risks of brain injury while playing youth sports and the effects it may have on developing brains. However, most of the research has looked at changes in the brain as a result of concussion.
“Most investigators believe that concussions are bad for the brain, but what about the hundreds of head impacts during a season of football that don’t lead to a clinically diagnosed concussion? We wanted to see if cumulative sub-concussive head impacts have any effects on the developing brain,” said the study’s lead author, Christopher T. Whitlow, M.D., Ph.D., M.H.A., associate professor and chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The researchers followed 25 youth male football players aged 8 to 13. Pre and post season evaluations were done with multimodal neuroimaging, including diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) of the brain. DTI is an advanced MRI technique, which identifies microstructural changes in the brain’s white matter.
The brain’s white matter is composed of millions of nerve fibers called axons that act like communication cables connecting various regions of the brain. Diffusion tensor imaging produces a measurement, called fractional anisotropy (FA), of the movement of water molecules in the brain and along axons. In healthy white matter, the direction of water movement is fairly uniform and measures high in FA. When water movement is more random, FA values decrease, which has been associated with brain abnormalities in some studies.
The results showed a significant relationship between head impacts and decreased FA in specific white matter tracts and tract terminals, where white and gray matters meet.
“We found that these young players who experienced more cumulative head impact exposure had more changes in brain white matter, specifically decreased FA, in specific parts of the brain,” Dr. Whitlow said. “These decreases in FA caught our attention, because similar changes in FA have been reported in the setting of mild TBI.”
It is important to note that none of the players had any signs or symptoms of concussion.
“We do not know if there are important functional changes related to these findings, or if these effects will be associated with any negative long-term outcomes,” Dr. Whitlow said. “Football is a physical sport, and players may have many physical changes after a season of play that completely resolve. These changes in the brain may also simply resolve with little consequence. However, more research is needed to understand the meaning of these changes to the long-term health of our youngest athletes.”
What should we take from this? They’ve shown there’s obvious “changes” to the brain following one season but there is no evidence at this time that can really say if its all that dangerous. It very well could resolve on its own, but at the same time there is a chance it could cause negative long term affects. If that’s the case, this could also mean there’s a possibility of cumulative affects with each season. But we really don’t know.
So what to do? Well I think the best approach, like with really anything as it relates to our health, is to look at the risk vs the reward. Any physical activity has some risk associated with it. But in most cases the reward is more valuable. So we do it. This is always the biggest opposition I see to Crossfit. A lot of people strongly believe that Crossfit is going to cause an injury. It’s simply not true that it WILL. Can it? Yes definitely, but it is not more likely to cause you and injury than most other exercise programs or sporting activities. In the case of football and what we’re discussing above it’s harder to really know because, well it’s your brain and the injury isn’t so obvious, and we don’t really know the extent of it or if it’ll heal either.
I tend to lean more in the direction of the risk is worth it for the reward, even in youth sports. There’s a lot more benefit from youth sports beyond the physical. I think it’s good that we are aware of the risks though, so we can make an educated decision vs not knowing the dangers that could be there. Since we know there is a potential danger there, we can be sure we’re promoting health and repair in the other areas of our lives, such as getting our diet right and avoiding toxins that can interfere with our healing ability. And of course always making sure we’re considering the health of our spine on a regular basis.
Be safe – Dr. Mark