Though the long-term effects of concussions garners increasing scrutiny, there remains much to learn.
Scientists are learning more and more about concussions, but they’ve got a long way to go before even some of the more basic questions are answered, according to University of Georgia concussion researcher Julianne Schmidt.
“Everyone is talking about it,” said Schmidt, a professor in UGA’s kinesiology department and co-director with Rob Lynall of the UGA Concussion Research Laboratory, “but we know very little about it.”
In the media and in conversation, concussion discussions often focus on football, but concussion rates in some other contact sports aren’t so different — women’s lacrosse, soccer, even basketball — Schmidt recently told a small crowd at Little Kings as part of the Athens’ Science Cafe series.
The Science Cafe series lets scientists, primarily from UGA, share their expertise with a lay audience in an informal setting.
The UGA lab has used monitoring devices to count head hits in a season of UGA football, and in youth football players in Oconee County, Schmidt said.
It’s important to be wary of over-reacting to the many research reports that are coming out now.
Recent studies of trauma found in the brains of former NFL players obscure the fact that many men play football, but don’t seem to suffer long-term brain consequences.
“It’s certainly not a cross-section of the NFL,” Schmidt said.
And the risks of injury from repeated or violent collisions involving the head should be balanced against the benefits of physical activity, she said.
One thing we can do, Schmidt said, is to dispel myths about concussions. For example, mouth guards don’t prevent concussions, though they reduce dental injuries. And just because someone doesn’t lose consciousness does not mean they don’t have a concussion.
We want to make contact sports safer, but it’s not always easy to know how to do that, she explained.
Should sports organizations enforce a limit of hits to the head before someone should stand down? There’s no bright shining line on either how hard or how many hits to the head cross some threshold, said Schmidt.
“We have no idea where to draw that line,” she said.
Scientists can measure the force when two players’ heads collide, but what inflicts a concussion on one person will leave another unfazed.
Scientists also don’t know why children take longer to recover from concussions than adults; with most injuries, children heal more quickly.
Researchers don’t know why women seem more likely to suffer concussions than men, though a factor could be that women are more likely than men to report problems, said Schmidt, adding that about half of concussions go unreported.
Rules changes can help. When football changed the kickoff point from the 30 yard line to the 35, that effectively reduced the speed offense and defense could build up before colliding.
It could also help to add medical personnel on the sidelines of high school and younger football games, she said.
At a football game involving a team like UGA, medical workers or doctors trained in recognizing and treating concussions are on the sideline. But at a high school or youth football game, there may not be a single person with that training, she said.
Research into “repetitive head trauma” and the effects of that later in life has grown sharply in recent years.
“This is what has really caught fire,” Schmidt said. But “we have more questions than answers about later-life consequences.”