As high school and youth football players take to practice fields this month, they do so amid growing concern that sports-related head injuries may start early and last a lifetime.

The direction of the research suggests that major changes in equipment and rules may be necessary to make football and other contact sports safer.

Tuesday, scientists, partly funded by the National Football League, announced they had found evidence that some professional athletes once diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease actually suffered from a condition caused by accumulated head injuries.

Athletic coaches, trainers and parents at all levels have become familiar with the danger of traumatic concussions. These are the extremely hard tackles and blocks that often make the nightly TV highlight films during football season.

Players are sometimes left unconscious on the field as fans at home and at the stadium watch in silence. Stories also abound of groggy players staggering off the field between plays, having sustained blows to the head.

Much has been done in recent years to improve the reporting, diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injuries.

But a lengthy story in June in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette described an even more frightening problem emerging from the research, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.

Football players, researchers now suspect, can sustain life-altering head trauma without ever being diagnosed with a concussion.

What’s more, a single genetic marker may leave 25 percent of athletes more susceptible to long-term damage.

Researchers at the Brain Injury Research Institute in Morgantown, W.Va., have examined the brains of 11 professional players, including Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry, who died last year when he fell from the back of a moving pickup truck.

They found that Henry, only 26, had extensive Tau protein stains, or brown spots, surrounding damaged brain cells.

Henry never missed a game because of a concussion either in the pros, college or high school.

The stains were identical to those found in the brains of pro players who played many years and had completed their careers.

Among the findings:

Single, dramatic blows to the head are not the most dangerous part of the game. “Rather, it is the constant thumping of the helmet and the brain inside the skull that causes long-term harm.”

These types of blows, the researchers said, are common at all levels of play, from youth football to the NFL.

A single genetic precursor, Apolipoprotein E, that is found in only 25 percent of the population, was found in 70 percent of the athletes with damaged brains, meaning it may have made them more prone to injury.

Multiple or repeated blows to the head lead to behavioral changes similar to dementia.

Ultimately, it seems inevitable that football must change to better protect players at all levels from accumulated brain traumas.

Possible solutions involve everything from warning labels on helmets to more rule changes that reduce head contact to standing lineman up at the line of scrimmage rather than starting them in the traditional three-point stance.

In the meantime, parents, players and coaches should be doing everything possible to avoid head contact.


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