Concussions: This Is Your Brain on Sports

‘Head Games’ exposes the truth about what happens to athletes’ brains after years of play.
People assume that concussions are only for professional athletes, but kids are actually at greater risk. (Photo: J. Merick/Getty Images)
Feb 7, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

In 2003 Christopher Nowinski was a former All-Ivy football player and Harvard grad enjoying a successful wrestling career with the WWE. During a televised match, he took a hit to the head that was severe enough to make him momentarily forget where he was. Though the wrestler shrugged it off and finished the event, what followed was five years of depression, headaches, and short-term memory problems that kept him out of work and searching for answers.

Eventually Nowinski was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome, revealing that he hadn’t suffered just one concussion his last night in the ring, but hundreds over the course of his sports career—and he wasn’t alone.

In the new documentary Head Games, based upon Nowinski’s book of the same title, the athlete exposes the sports industry’s open secret: Widespread head injuries are a common occurrence for all players—including the kids who play in after-school leagues.

Often ignored as an inevitable part of the game, new research proves that those who sustain repeated hits to the head, mild or otherwise, are at increased risk for long-term memory loss, dementia, depression and suicide—and those symptoms can manifest years after the athletes have stopped playing.

While Head Games isn’t about banning sports, it is about bringing to light a need for greater education and protection against brain trauma that’s become an everyday occurrence in leagues across the country.

“The number one reason why we don’t speak up [after being hit in the head] is because we’ve never been trained to speak up,” Nowinski tells TakePart. “Everyone is taught not to go to your coach and complain about problems unless they are so dramatic that you can’t compete. And concussions are rarely so devastating that you can’t play through them. So athletes thought they’d been doing the right thing by ignoring the symptoms.”

According to the research, even though players can usually continue playing after taking a hit to the head, they shouldn’t. And children especially need to stay sidelined for months at a time after enduring a head injury, even when seemingly minor. The reason is simple: Sustaining one concussion and letting it heal most likely means a full recovery, but sustaining a second while still healing from the first is infinitely more dangerous to the brain’s long-term health.

The answer seems simple: We need better helmets. But Nowinski says those won’t prevent concussive symptoms. “Helmets can only do so much to protect the brain, because your brain’s floating in fluid inside the skull,” he says. “The problem is your brain accelerates quickly hitting the skull and helmets are not protective enough to prevent that from happening.”

Though all ages are at risk, the younger the player, the more vulnerable she is—and that’s why Nowinski recommends increased education and prevention. If more coaches and parents were aware of the dangers, kids in high school football wouldn’t have full-contact practices five days a week; they’d have one, just like in the NFL. Similarly, while little league coaches count every pitch thrown in order to prevent damage to a growing arm, the same type of watchful precaution needs to happen when it comes a child’s brain.

“Children aren’t born knowing what they’re brain is and what a concussion does and to this day, we don’t train them to do that. They rarely report concussion problems, so we aren’t diagnosing them,” Nowinski says. “We need to do more when it comes to prevention, we need to lower their exposure and we need to improve our medical structure to provide for them. The NFL teams have ten doctors and children have nothing.”

Nowinski and his crew of filmmakers are hoping that Head Games will become standard viewing in locker rooms around the country, especially for the smallest players. The film's theatrical DVD launch will be this August, but you can watch it now on sites like Amazon and iTunes.

While there’s nothing wrong with cheering on our kids to push themselves on the field, it’s imperative we protect them while they do it.

Have you experienced a concussion from a full-contact sport? Let us know in the Comments.