July 30–Limiting contact at football practices could be pivotal in reducing youth head injuries, according to the latest collaborative helmet research effort released Monday by two universities.
Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Virginia Tech determined that youth players exposed to less contact during practice had a 37 percent to 46 percent lower risk of head injuries.
However, other researchers say limiting practice contact also limits the opportunity to teach and enforce proper tackling techniques.
In 2012, the national Pop Warner organization mandated that no more than one-third of practice time, or about 40 minutes a week, could be devoted to full-speed contact.
One of the three teams in the study, from Blacksburg, Va., is not a Pop Warner team but implemented the organization’s limited contact practice policy. It had 14 participating players in the study.
A total of 36 players from the South Fork Panthers junior pee wee and pee wee teams participated in the study. They play in the Piedmont Youth Football and Cheer League and do not adhere to Pop Warner policies.
Concussion is the most common sports-related head injury, with football players having the highest rate among male high-school athletes.
The study is the second major research effort focusing on head injuries in youth football over the past six weeks.
The University of Pittsburgh and its medical center came to similar conclusions in a study released June 6, but their researchers said limiting contact in practice is having little effect in reducing concussion risk.
Although more than 70 percent of U.S. football players are under age 14, “there is no clear, scientifically based understanding of the effect of repeated blows to the head in young players,” said Steven Rowson, assistant professor at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences and lead author of the study.
The Wake Forest-Virginia Tech study covered 50 youth league players ages 9 to 12 on three teams in two leagues. Sensors were installed in helmets similar to the way Virginia Tech has done it for years and Reagan High School players in Pfafftown did it during the 2012 season.
The sensors are installed on an elastic base inside the helmet so they remain in contact with the head throughout impact, allowing for measurement of head acceleration rather than that of the helmet. Data from the sensors is transmitted wirelessly to a computer on the sideline and processed to measure both the linear and rotational head acceleration caused by each impact.
The researchers were able to determine the average exposure level of a typical 9- to 12-year-old player. They concluded that players on the Pop Warner team had an average of 37 percent to 46 percent fewer head impacts than players on the other two teams.
The researchers found no significant game difference between the teams’ players in terms of impact frequency and acceleration magnitudes.
Teams in the Northwest Midget league, with a combined total of about 600 players, play under the limited-contact guidelines. That included no full-speed head-on or tackling drills allowed when players line up more than 3 yards apart.
“It is striking that you can cut head impacts for a player in half just by modifying practice, and it does not seem to change the game,” said Dr. Alexander Powers, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Wake Forest Baptist and co-author of the study. “This may be very important in kids where brains are developing.”
Powers is a co-author in another report released by the two universities July 18 in which scientists say they have come up with a new way of tracking the cumulative effect of impacts to the head incurred by football players. In that study, the technology, known as Risk Weighted Cumulative Exposure, measures the frequency and magnitude of all impacts during the course of a season.
The University of Pittsburgh study, which received financing from the National Football League, observed 468 players on 18 youth football teams in suburban Pittsburgh and central Pennsylvania.
The Pittsburgh study said youth players were 26 times more likely to receive a concussion during a game than during practice. Players ages 8 to 10 were nearly three times more likely to suffer a concussion than those 11 and 12. Quarterbacks, running backs and linebackers suffered almost all of the total concussions, 19 of 20.
“This finding suggests that reducing contact-practice exposures in youth football, which some leagues have done recently, will likely have little effect on reducing concussion risk, as few concussions actually occur in practice,” said Anthony Kontos, assistant research director for the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion program .
However, in a June article in USA Today, Julian Bailes, chairman of Pop Warner’s medical advisory board, defended its limited-contract policy. Pop Warner football has about 275,000 youth players nationwide.
“We’re not going to repeal it,” Bailes said. “I think the article was erroneous in its conclusions and not the right message,” Bailes said.
The local studies can be found on the website of the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.