Neurosurgeon, athletic trainer discuss football concussion risks

Updated: Jul. 28, 2017 at 9:27 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Parents across the Tennessee Valley are deciding whether to let their kids play football. A study published in the medical journal JAMA this week showed 99 percent of more than 100 former NFL players who donated their brains for research had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.

Dr. Joel Pickett, a neurosurgeon with the Spine and Neuro Center at Huntsville Hospital, said increased awareness about the dangers of concussions has led to better recognition that players have suffered a head injury, and better treatment and practices when they do.

"There is a danger, and there is a risk. But there are risks to life," he said. "It wasn't that many years ago when a coach would call a player over after a concussion and ask him what he did during a play, and if he knew what he was supposed to be doing during that play, then he was good enough to play. And now it's much more sophisticated than that."

Wes Minor is an athletic trainer with Huntsville Hospital Sports Center, which provides athletic trainers for all of Huntsville city high schools and other schools. He works with the Grissom High School football program, where his son is a player. He said the knowledge about how to diagnose concussions has grown greatly during his 20 year career.

"That's why we do such an extensive evaluation with them. We ask them questions. We ask them what happened, what they remember happening. And then we have actual physical activities. We'll take them through a battery of tests to determine if they have any deficiencies in any of those physical areas," he said. "It's important for us as athletic trainers to prevent concussions, and once we determine there is a concussion present to set protocol to keep the athletes safe."

Minor and Pickett both said new helmet designs, rule changes that penalize using the helmet as a weapon, and coaches teaching proper tackling techniques have improved player safety.

"Coaches are teaching those techniques and reviewing them and making sure athletes are hitting the right way. Head up when contact. So I've seen coaches embrace the changes," Minor said.

Pickett said the biggest risk comes with multiple concussions suffered in a short period of time, so a player must be kept from returning to the field until they have completely recovered from a head injury.

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