is playing football dangerous for your health?

American Football is the nation's favorite sport to watch … but, increasingly, it's not our favorite one to play. The image of the sport has been tarnished by a growing number of reports about long term damage to participants.

We've all seen old players limping; we know the tragedies. We've accepted it. But the sport has a new tragedy that's just becoming apparent: recent studies show the accumulative damage of even the lightest concussions.

Personal testimonies of players have awakened the public to the possibility of an insidious danger in football. New research is raising questions about the sport's safety which haven't been truly examined before.

In this article, we'll look at the damage playing football can cause, and help you to decide if it's the right sport for you—or your loved one.

The Big Game 

Football has a lot going for it. It offers the public the energy of having a tough team of proxies battle it out across the country. Some say it's a sponsored brawl, but even academia approves of its charms: not a few American schools and higher institutions can more accurately be described as football teams offering classes for credit.

Unfortunately, money, influence, and crowd approval aren't getting the ball across the line with Mother Nature. Increasingly, it's looking like our bodies just aren't made for the kind of punishment the sport delivers.

Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones…

And so can football. Sprains and strains are usual in most sports, but football has long been given a special pass as a generator of hard knocks. Bruises make up a quarter of physical injuries, with dislocations and fractures adding another 25%.

Rule changes over the years have gotten rid of the most dangerous plays and tactics. Helmets reduce skull fractures (though not concussions), and mouthguards protect the teeth and tongue. Shoulder pads, thigh pads, knee pads, hip pads—all were developed in the continuing quest to protect participants.

Diet-related Issues: Obesity, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease and Others

The game's demands lead many players to put on a lot of weight, and dealing with the side effects can continue for years. Packing on the pounds is bad for your heart, and the food habits it creates can bring on poor health issues like diabetes and chronic weight gain.

Sleep Apnea 

Most of football's damage is off the field. Sleep apnea affects an estimated 14% to 19% of NFL players; by comparison, this condition occurs in from 2% to 5% of the general population. The widow of Reggie White has helped push for more research into sleep apnea after it was implicated in the NFL lineman's death.

Joint Injuries 

Joints are obviously at risk for any impact activity—the problem with football is that impact is the game's essence. Any sport can lead to a sprained ankle, but football does a particularly thorough job on knees, with ACL, MCL and meniscus tears being woefully common. Other common injuries are to the calf, shoulder and hamstrings.

Evidence has long indicated that football's grinding impact on joints sets players up for arthritis and rheumatism in later years.

The Big Issue: Brain Injury 

Recent studies have set off new alarm about the dangers of football to the brain. In 2017, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed the donated brains of 202 football players—of all levels--and found CTE in 177 of them. 88%.

The findings have brought more attention and research to the issue of brain injuries, and what science is finding isn't good.

High impact brain injury is immediately damaging, but there is an even greater health risk in football that seems unavoidable: multiple low-impact concussive events that don't register individually ("shake it off!") but spell trouble down the road.

An image of an human brain top view

Overt Concussions 

An image of footballer s having Concussions

Football does a good job looking out for symptoms of concussion and sidelining players if they exhibit them. The usual indications are headache and fatigue, along with cognitive issues of confusion and memory loss. The overt symptoms resolve quickly, usually within a week.

But we're seeing that there's more to the story. Just having a concussion sets you up for more trouble, because impacts are cumulative. You may feel fine, but the inner aftershocks leave you more vulnerable for another collision.

Another factor is age, because the brain is developing rapidly in youth from 8 to 12 years old. A study published in 2017 found that young players playing tackle football who started before age 12 have twice the normal risk of cognitive impairment and behavior issues.

Repetitive Subconcussion 

A grimmer picture emerged from the 2017 study on CTE mentioned above. Evidence is revealing that the most damaging aspect of football is the repeated "soft," or subconcussive, concussions that are a part of the game. These small but repetitive hits can change the brain’s structural integrity in ways that show up in later life.

Evidence is Mounting

In early 2018, Brain magazine published a BU study that examined the brains of 4 teenage football players and found evidence of pre-CTE changes. To test their hypothesis that damaged blood vessels can lead to these early CTE formation, they subjected mice to the equivalent head impacts encountered in football—and found they could give the rodents CTE without having them experience an actual concussion.

The study's coauthor, Lee Goldstein, explains the findings: “It’s the hits to the head, not concussion, that trigger CTE."

What is the Most Dangerous Position in Football?

One of the tough things to face about the latest information is that there really isn't a safe position.

Linebackers and Defensive Backs have the hardest and most repetitious impacts, but it's impossible to prevent routine collisions. Running backs and wide receivers have potentially less contact, but even Quarterbacks get blindsided: it is literally part of the game.

The Jury is Still Out 

Recent findings are troubling, but not conclusive. More information is still needed. The studies so far have basically shown a strong correlation between repeated soft concussions and CTE, but they haven't proved causation. Other factors might be the culprit.

Also, the landmark 2017 study that found 88% of former football players had CTE was carried out on donated brains. It wasn't a random sampling, but one made from a self-reported group already having cognitive or behavior issues.

Is There Anything You Can Do to Stay Safe?

People do dangerous things all the time, and there are no prohibitions on playing football. If you love the game but want to take precautions, staying fit and putting your health first can increase your odds.

  • Stay in shape: don't play if you're not fit
  • Warm up thoroughly
  • Stretch properly before and after
  • Keep a good diet with proper nutrition
  • Stay hydrated
  • Get the rest you need
  • Take time off to recover from a rough practice or game

Conclusion

Reports have come out about the dangers of gridiron football before, and the sport has always managed to find mitigation or a rule change to resolve the crisis. The latest information may be too much to overcome, however.

Already many parents are redirecting their children to safer sports. Of course, no sports are fully safe—but most don't try to inflict damage as an integral element of its play.

Millions still love the game. If the risk is worthwhile and you wish to keep playing, the best thing to do is stay informed. Keep aware and stay prepared. Don't 'play through' a head injury, and take a few recovery days after a grueling practice.

Football has been through many setbacks, and has entertained countless millions: but it may be time to use our heads for something else.

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