We're far removed from the days of watching a league like the NFL neglect concussions, in fact, interpreting them as an injury divorced from any long term or cumulative effects. Well, sort of. It took a veritable body count for them to take notice, but progress is progress.
So how do we quantify that progress? Luckily it's not just being fought with science, but with legislation. In Canada, a youth concussion program is being implemented to establish baseline cognitive scores for students enrolling in athletic programs so that, should they suffer any sort of head trauma, coaches and officials now know what to test against, and what to look for thanks to quick and easy cognitive exams.
Oregon has what is known as Max's Law, which requires coaches to be trained in concussion detection. Gone are the days of coaches telling the young athletes to shake off the sting of "getting your bell rung". Why? Because even "getting your bell rung" is a legitimate sign of head trauma.
The effects of brain injury are well known: vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to light, and so forth. But more information continues to be unpacked. Recent studies expand on the long term of effects of TBI, such as how head trauma increases the risk of sleep disorder by 60%.
But when it comes to preventing these injuries, technology doesn't offer much in the way of solutions. "Mark Kelso, a former Bills safety, has spoken publicly about how the rubber Pro Cap he used over his helmet saved him from concussions. However, he appears to be unaware that the Pro Cap makes the helmet thicker, which creates a longer lever arm between the helmet surface and the neck, increasing the chance of serious neck injury", explained David Epstein in his curator's note at In Media Res.
He also notes the curious behavior of manufacturers unwilling to broadcast their support of these technologies. Perhaps they know something the public doesn't: which is that even a "leatherhead", football helmets of the early 1900's, are just as good at protecting against head injuries as modern day helmets. This was what Cleveland Clinic found in their biomechanics lab when comparing helmets of yesteryear with the helmets of today. While it's true modern day helmets are better at protecting against the more serious neck injuries, they do little to alleviate concussions, which at this point are unavoidable and not something technology can resolve.
But technology is not helpless. Modern day helmets can hold what a leatherhead can't: accelerometers. With the news that impact sensors can be placed in mouthpieces, MMA, should Zuffa lead the charge in this area (and for which to their credit they've been an active part of), can take part in these advancements.
These are all significant breakthroughs. But they neglect the growing concern of concussions as they relate to youth. Why are teenagers so much more prone to long term effects? How does Jamie Wirth, a female high school basketball player, get sidelined for two years just from taking a stray basketball to the head? Understanding what puts teenagers at a unique risk of long term injury requires an understanding of the teenage brain itself.
As teenagers, we rarely felt in control. We were slaves to our own hormones. But we were also slaves to a literal remodeling of the brain. As David Dobbs explained in a recent issue of National Geographic, on what makes the teenage brain so different:
For starters, the brain's axons—the long nerve fibers that neurons use to send signals to other neurons—become gradually more insulated with a fatty substance called myelin (the brain's white matter), eventually boosting the axons' transmission speed up to a hundred times.
Meanwhile, dendrites, the branchlike extensions that neurons use to receive signals from nearby axons, grow twiggier, and the most heavily used synapses—the little chemical junctures across which axons and dendrites pass notes—grow richer and stronger. At the same time, synapses that see little use begin to wither. This synaptic pruning, as it is called, causes the brain's cortex—the outer layer of gray matter where we do much of our conscious and complicated thinking—to become thinner but more efficient. Taken together, these changes make the entire brain a much faster and more sophisticated organ.
If your teenage years seem chaotic, it's because the chaos is taking place within each neuron. The teenage brain is highly active, and is in a sense, immature itself. These changes explain why teenagers are so much more inclined to risk taking, and those risks in turn, explain the tragic statistics of when drug and alcohol abuse are more likely to begin (during adolescence).
Most of us more or less understand this. The younger you are, the better you're able to learn a new language. Why? Because when you're young, your brain literally connects with more neurons per neuron (15 thousand connections as a child versus ten as an adult, to be exact). Perhaps this explains why Ms. Wirth, and other teenagers seem so prone to long term effects.
A concussion interrupts the brain during a critical period. It's a banana peel thrown underneath the foot of a sprinter in the 100 meters.
I've said my piece on the issue before: sports promote healthy living. Participants are less likely to drink alcohol, smoke, or eat in the fashion that has led to American's growing obesity epidemic. And so while concussions challenge sports as a place for healthy living, they shouldn't discourage parents altogether. Now's the time for awareness: not protest.