Playing football is all about toughness, and playing through pain is a mantra that is instilled in football players starting at a young age. But according to a new concussion recovery time study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, the culture of football that teaches players to play through pain may be doing serious harm, especially when it comes to treating and recovering from a traumatic brain injury or TBI.
According to the concussion recovery time study, high school athletes who continued to play after sustaining a concussion took nearly twice as long to recover from the injury as players who immediately stopped playing after the injury. The new study is believed to be the first to address the issue of ‘toughing it out’ when it comes to treating a concussion.
Dawon Dicks has seen firsthand how the culture of football has made players reluctant to admit when they may be injured. As a youth football coach in Massachusetts, Dicks says kids may be feeling pressure to stay on the field so they can get that football scholarship to a college they want to attend or prove to their coach or their parents that they can ‘grit it out’ when they are hurt. “That’s when they’re going to start to be a little dishonest in what they’re truly feeling,” Dicks says.
Playing Through TBI Doubles Recovery Time
The concussion recovery time study was conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program, which tracked the neurological symptoms of 69 athletes between the ages of 12 and 19. The athletes were not just football players, others played ice hockey, soccer, wrestling, volleyball, field hockey, basketball, and rugby.
Of the 69 who participated in the research, 35 were immediately removed from play after sustaining a concussion, while the remaining 34 continued to play after the TBI. The athletes who were removed from play took 22 days on average to recover from their injury. Those who continued to play took 44 days on average to recover.
The researchers noted that there were no discernible differences in the recovery times between male and female athletes, though that may be the result of the study’s small sample size. Despite the small sample size, researchers nonetheless point out that the data clearly suggests that physical and cognitive rest following a TBI is critical to healing.
What Are the Implications of the Concussion Recovery Time Study?
The researchers involved with the study believe the findings will reinforce the message to coaches, parents, and players that taking immediate precautions after sustaining a traumatic brain injury will actually allow for more playing time once the injury heals, not less. Rest in the 24 to 48 hours after sustaining a concussion, then slowly getting back into normal sports activities under the supervision of a doctor, helps to reduce stress on the system. This allows brain cells to heal more quickly, which, in turn, allows athletes to return to the field of play faster than they would have otherwise.
The notion of resting after a concussion is far from a new idea, but until now, there haven’t been many studies with data to verify the importance of immediate rest. This data is particularly important for treating young people that have sustained a TBI, as their brains are still developing. Research has shown that the developing brain is more vulnerable to the psychological effects of TBI.
Every year in the U.S. 3.8 million people suffer sports-related traumatic brain injuries, according to the New York Times. These injuries can be caused by a direct blow or jolt to the head that causes the brain to bounce within a person’s skull, damaging brain cells in the process. Despite public advocacy campaigns and increased awareness of TBI, an estimated 50 to 70 percent of concussions are not reported.
The increased awareness of concussions also differs in parts of the country. Mr. Dicks, for example, has coached football at both private schools and urban public schools. The differences between the two, according to Mr. Dicks, couldn’t be more pronounced. The private school went above and beyond to elevate the importance of concussions, including placing a certified athletic trainer at every practice and game. At the urban public school, Mr. Dicks said kids might get a handout or something to that effect giving them some background information on concussions.
While it may be true that concussions are at times difficult for coaches, parents, and trainers to spot, the larger issue here may still be the culture of sports like football, which has engendered the mindset of toughness as defined by playing through pain. Athletes are taught to be tough by getting up after being knocked to the ground, to sacrifice their bodies for the team. If this study shows anything, it’s that young athletes that play through concussions are sacrificing more than they know.