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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Youth football — not so innocent

Of the 5 million Americans who play football in a given year, 3.5 million of them are children ages seven to 13. Despite this, little is known about the effects of the constant head-to-head impact players frequently incur during a typical game. But Stefan Duma, a biomedical engineering professor and researcher at Virginia Tech University, is beginning to shed light on this mystery.

Duma discussed his recent research on concussions in young football players and his new ranking system for football helmets this past week, as part of the UC Davis biomedical engineering department’s Distinguished Seminar Series.

As Duma explained, concussions are often a hidden injury. Unlike other injuries such as breaking an arm or tearing a muscle, a concussion will not always show outward symptoms, even though the damage inside can be very severe. Further, it’s not a type of injury that forces a player off the field like a broken arm does, and players never want to leave the game.

“Nobody knows exactly what a concussion is. A hit that knocks one player down may cause another player to just shake off,” Duma said at his lecture last Thursday. “What we do know is the higher the acceleration of the impact, the more likely you are going to have a concussion.”

Over the course of one season, the Virginia Tech football team, the Hokies, wore helmets outfitted with impact sensors to measure the amount of forces sustained by players during head-to-head impact, both in practice and during games.

Duma did the same analysis on youth football, children aged seven to eight years old, at a local football league near the university. He later expanded his study to multiple college football teams and high schools.

Duma and the other researchers were surprised by the data they received. They found that many of the impacts that children endured were at the same level as those suffered by college players. This finding, as Duma explained, is very concerning, not only because that amount of impact is known clinically to cause concussions but also because the effect of this impact on developing brains is unknown.

“It shows that concussions have been underreported. Based on this we want to better understand head impact in children and develop methods to better identify injuries,” said Steve Rowson, an assistant research professor at Virginia Tech and co-author of the study.

The study also revealed that the majority of the high impacts were incurred during practice, rather than during the actual games. This finding could potentially cause coaches to rethink practice methods.

“These kids are already in great shape. They don’t necessarily need to have constant head-to-head impact to get better,” Duma said.

Based on this research, Duma and his team have come up with a five-star ranking system for football helmets, which they believe are at the root of the problem.

“Prior to this, helmets had never been ranked. They were either considered safe or unsafe,” Rowson said.

Much like the five star ranking system in a car, this system tells how well a helmet will perform during a head on collision. Surprisingly, they found no correlation between cost and helmet performance.

In fact, as Rowson noted, “one of the cheaper helmets was actually a four star helmet.”

Duma and his researchers believe this new ranking system, paired with further research to understand how exactly these young players sustain their head injuries, will significantly improve the safety of football.

CLAIRE MALDARELLI can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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