What's Killing American High School Football Stars?

This week, high school football player Tom Cutinella was laid to rest. The 16-year-old from Long Island died while blocking for a teammate during a football game. 

Cutinella was the third high school football player to die in one week. Another player from Alabama collapsed after making a tackle, and a player in North Carolina collapsed while warming up for a game. 

In 2013, eight high school football players were killed as a direct result of playing, and half of the injuries occurred during games, according to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research. Three-quarters of those deaths were caused by brain injuries. 

Berkeley Researchers Developing Emergency Drug for Brain Injuries »

Concussions Don’t Have to Be Fatal to Do Damage

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that each year more than 173,000 people under the age of 20 are treated for sports-related concussions. 

Ongoing research on traumatic brain injuries shows that repeated concussions — and even repeated head injuries mild enough not to cause a concussion — can have profound and long-term effects on a player’s emotional and mental health.

As the National Football League, as well as collegiate sports, work to address the issue, new research shows that many parents of young athletes have misconceptions about how to handle head injuries. Two new studies are slated to be presented this weekend at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition in San Diego.

The first is a survey of 511 parents who took their children to a doctor within two weeks after a head injury. Nearly all the parents knew they should stop their children from playing after a head injury, but only 26 percent knew the guidelines for when their child should return to school or sports. 

"Our study showed that the vast majority of parents knew what to do if they suspected a concussion in their child, and in most cases understood the clinical importance of this injury as a brain injury," lead author Dr. Kirstin D. Weerdenburg, a pediatric emergency medicine fellow at Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, said in a release.

Learn More About the Different Types of Head Injuries »

However, a separate survey of 464 parents found many common misunderstandings about brain injuries:

  • Between 49 and 70 percent of parents incorrectly believed that a CT or MRI scan can diagnose a concussion.
  • About half of parents didn’t know that a “bell ring” or “ding” means a concussion.
  • More than three-quarters of parents incorrectly though that difficulty speaking is a symptom of a concussion.

To senior author Dr. Tracy Zaslow, medical director of the sports medicine and concussion program at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, the study shows many parents still need education about identifying concussions and post-injury care.

“Even those highly educated parents were prone to misconceptions," she said in a statement. "False perceptions such as the ones pinpointed by our study may impact when medical care is sought after concussion and lead to less than optimal home care."

More Than Just a 'Bell Ring'

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) can only be diagnosed at autopsy, but it is most commonly found in professional athletes in contact sports, including American football, hockey, boxing, and women’s soccer. 

But it doesn’t take helmet-splitting hits to alter a person’s brain chemistry.

Smaller head hits that don’t result in concussions can develop into CTE. That was the case for Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old lineman playing for the University of Pennsylvania. Thomas was never diagnosed with CTE, but studying his brain after his suicide in 2010 showed that he had advanced CTE — one of the youngest cases ever documented — according to The New York Times.

Many high-profile players, including former San Diego Charger Junior Seau, developed mental problems post-retirement, including depression and dementia, bringing the issue of the lasting effects of brain injuries to the public's attention.

Many professional athletes have pledged to donate their brains after their deaths so they can be studied for CTE and other diseases. But there is no comprehensive research available on CTE, since the research is largely based on case studies. 

Men as Mice: NFL Brains Shed Light on Long-Term Sports Risks »