There is a great deal of attention these days about head injuries to athletes at all levels, but especially to current and former National Football League players. The NFL is currently examining the impact of multiple concussions especially to high-priced quarterbacks and former players.
Dr. Thomas Talavage, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University, discussed the topic Wednesday evening at the Delaware State University's Martin Luther King Center. Talavage told the audience of about 200 students and community members that when a person is involved in contact sports, one of the big issues to understand is that you don't have to be obviously impaired to have suffered some type of actual damage or injury to your nervous system or to the brain.
"We need to understand that just because the athlete isn't on the sideline drooling, doesn't mean he or she isn't hurt," he said. "A concussion is classically defined based on observable symptoms, but those externally observed symptoms are essentially due to failures within the brain system."
Talavage explained that when a concussion occurs, the athlete is unable to combine pieces of information, the inability to effectively control articulators or speech or the inability to control balance. And he added a person cannot have these symptoms without a system failure somewhere in the brain. In his research, Talavage has concluded that the individual will accumulate damage each and every time he or she is hit.
One of the important points to remember is that if an individual, particularly a non-athlete sustains a blow to the head, recovery occurs right away, assuming no other injuries take place, or have taken place recently.
According to his research, medical problems begin when an athlete receives repeated hits to the head in a relatively short amount of time, and the system does not have sufficient time to recover.
"As long as you accumulate that damage slower than in the time your body can repair it, you're fine," Talavage said. "Your body will go in, repair the damaged cells, repair the membranes, regenerate most of the synaptic connections, you're going to come out of that injury in fine shape. However, if an individual receives repeated hits in the short term, you run the risk of long term, permanent damage."
Talavage began conducting his research several years ago by imaging the brains of high school football players who obviously were involved in a high impact sport. The goal of the research was to develop products and strategies to decrease the risk of short-term injuries, especially concussion, and long-term effects including chronic traumatic encephalopathy among athletes.
During his presentation, Talavage showed young athletes involved in violent, high speed collisions, and later the after-effects on the individuals. He explained that in most high school programs, there are strict rules about contact during training, and in the NFL, the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement also limited the amount of contact or "hitting" for the players from linemen to the skill position players.
Page 2 of 2 - Talavage said there are fewer restrictions for college athletes, a situation he feels needs to be addressed.
"We actually suspect now that with most of the players that are incurring head injuries and damage, a good chuck of it is occurring over the many years that play, say from third grade up through high school," he said. "But for the guys who continue onto college, that's maybe where they are actually getting the largest risk."