Football: Heading for trouble?

POSTED 20 NOV 2003

1. Knockin' heads

2. A player is down!

3. Caution about concussion

4. The macho factor

5. Odd sports injuries

Football offers plenty of occasion for collisions with massive, fast-moving objects. Can this hurt the head? Photo: Jeff Miller, copyright University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The worst athletic injuries affect the spinal cord and brain

One concussion can lead to another. Before you know it, your pro sports career may be kaput.

Football: Trouble ahead
Cluster of players scurry after ball.In September, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner played more than half a game with a concussion. Warner did not sideline himself, even though one concussion makes a second brain injury more likely -- and more serious. Nor did Rams coach Mike Martz yank Warner from the game, even though, as Martz said, Warner "didn't seem the same after that. A lot of times he didn't seem to understand the plays we were calling from the sidelines."

Mental confusion is a common symptom of concussion. At any rate, the Rams lost. Martz is still coach, and Warner is still benched.

But Warner is hardly the only big-time pro athlete who's had big-time trouble with his head recently.

New York Giants receiver Wayne Chrebet is out for the season because he "has not felt right since sustaining the latest concussion of his career."

Hockey great Pat LaFontaine, one of the top American-born scorers, cut his career short in 1998 after a series of concussions.

Multiple concussions also ended the careers of star National Football League quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman.

Car racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. was uncharacteristically sluggish during the 2002 season, due to concealed concussion symptoms.

Smiling driver leans on car.NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., before a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, March 2000. This man raced for several months during 2002 with symptoms of concussion.
AP Photo/Ric Feld

In pro sports in the United States, brain injuries are, shall we say, moving to the head of the class. But high-school and college athletes also risk brain damage. Between 1982 and 2002, brain injury was a primary cause of 551 deaths among roughly 120 million high-school and college athletes. During the same period, sports injuries caused long-term disability among another 742 high-school and college athletes, says the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.

Many are paralyzed.

And as more older Americans take up tennis, golf, biking, running and team sports, sport-med clinics are looking like a savvy investment. On the average day, more than 10,000 people are treated in U.S. emergency rooms for injuries from sports, recreation and exercise, sez the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. About 300,000 mild to moderate concussions occur in sports each year, the center reports.

Graph shows traumatic brain injuries most common.Concussions are a major type of traumatic brain injury. Crashes involving motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians are the primary cause of injury, but guns are the leading cause of death by traumatic brain injury. Graphic: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control

While recreational injuries often involve mangled muscles, a sore skeleton or jolted joints, the worst athletic injuries affect the spinal cord and brain. Why are so many athletes getting injured in the brain? What can be done to stop the carnage?

Football's legacy: A "great hit" or a lifelong injury?


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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.