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Even non-concussive injuries cause brain changes in kids

We all know the dangers of football and other high-contact sports to the brains of athletes of all ages. Often, serious brain injuries are associated with one or more serious concussions over a number of years of play.

However, a new study found that young players who have suffered blows to the head have displayed changes in their brain tissue without ever suffering a concussion, since their brains are still developing and rapidly changing through childhood and into their late teens. The more blows were suffered, the more tissue damage researchers found.

These findings should be of interest and concern to parents and those who coach and manage the football programs in which some 3 million kids participate in this country every year. The blows to the head that even grade school-age kids suffer can be severe. One pediatric neurosurgeon who was involved in the study says, "They are hitting at extremely high levels."

The study involved a group of over two dozen players from 8 to 13 years old in a youth football program. Sensors were placed on their helmets to measure the severity and frequency of head blows throughout a season. They underwent MRIs before and after the season to measure changes to their brain. While changes were found after the season, it remains to be seen whether these changes increase as kids continue to play, and whether they are permanent or dissipate in time.

One former National Football League player, whose 12-year-old son was part of the study, says that he knows that football at any age is "a very aggressive game." However, he hopes that the findings can be used to help implement new rules and drills that will protect young players from serious and long-term brain injury.

Coaches, school officials and those involved in youth sports programs all have an obligation to protect the health and well-being of young players. Those whose actions or negligence result in injury may be able to be held legally responsible.

Source: NBC News, "Is Football Safe for Kids? New Study Finds Brain Changes," Stephanie Gosk, Aliza Nadi, Hannah Rappleye and Tracy Connor, Oct. 24, 2016

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