What's Missing from the Football Concussion Debate

Concussion risks can be mitigated with the proper steps.

A new study shows the number of children who visited emergency rooms for sports-related brain injuries has nearly doubled in the last 10 years.

The benefits to health and well-being of playing football exceed the risk of permanent brain injury.

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This weekend, the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks will face off on what is arguably the biggest stage in all of sports, the 48th Super Bowl. The game marks the end of a season that has put sports-related concussions and their impact on the brain under the microscope – so much so that many parents are more worried than ever that permanent brain damage is an inevitable outcome of playing youth football. In fact, a new poll finds 40 percent of Americans would encourage their children to play a sport other than football due to concerns about concussions.

Clearly, concussions are dangerous and each one should be taken very seriously. A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, that changes the way your brain normally works. The risk of suffering a concussion exists in most activities. In fact, the leading cause of these injuries is not sports but falls, which are responsible for 35.2 percent of all brain injuries.

Regardless of the cause, the good news is that brain damage from a singe concussion is rarely permanent. Concussions can be treated and cognitive function can be regained. That’s right, in most cases an individual will recover after suffering a single concussion given proper management, therapy and time to heal. A player who breaks an ankle would not be sent out to play the next day. Similarly, a player who suffers a concussion should be removed from play immediately and referred to a qualified medical professional for diagnosis, treatment and annual monitoring.

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What we have lost sight of during the heated concussion discussion are the immense benefits that come from youth sports. The benefits to health and well-being exceed the risk of permanent brain injury. Participating in youth football and other athletic competition promotes important academic and leadership skills that help build a healthy foundation for life. Being involved in sports provides rich opportunities to increase self-esteem, build a strong commitment to schoolwork, ward off depression, mitigate the risk of lifelong addictions, promote better sleep habits and motivate physical activity.

So how do we help our youth take advantage of the benefits of sports while minimizing the risk of concussions? We can direct our energies toward concussion prevention, following safety protocols and continuing to make playing the game safer. Equally as important is to take steps to increase brain resilience before stepping onto the field. Training football players and other athletes should not stop with rigorous physical activity; brain and cognitive function both contribute to the overall health equation. Imagine emphasizing school performance to enhance brain health on the playing field – that is a double win.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Football Be Fundamentally Changed to Make It Safer?]

In the last five years, scientists have proven that significant steps can be taken to build and repair brain performance just as physical recovery can be achieved for other parts of the body. We should work continuously to strengthen our brains through a daily regimen that balances complex thinking with brain down time and eliminates toxic mental habits like multitasking and long hours playing computer games. Fortunately, we are never too young or too old to adopt healthy brain habits to strengthen and recover our brain’s capacity to think smarter, especially given a history of concussions.

Instead of steering our youth away from sports, let’s guide them to take advantage of the vast rewards and character building thrills of team spirit. As parents and professionals who want well-rounded teens, we can work together to make the game safer, reduce the risk of repeated concussions, help the brain to heal during the season and off-season, and train the brain to build life-long cognitive resilience– an approach that will help enhance our brain performance in sports and in life.