Three million children in the U.S. play in tackle football programs. While many doctors and scientists have taken a look at the impact of concussions, new research by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center studied the impact of less-serious blows to the head that are common during games.
The study included 25 players between the ages of 8 and 13 and was centered on a youth program in Winston-Salem, N.C. Each boy was outfitted with a helmet that measured the severity and frequency of head blows.
“This is important, particularly for children, because their brains are undergoing such rapid change, particularly in the age category from maybe 9 to 18. And we just don’t know a lot of about it,” Dr. Chris Whitlow, a lead researcher, told NBC News.
Researchers say their findings indicated that even at this young age, the boys were receiving pretty hard hits.
The doctors then performed MRIs on the players and determined there were some changes in the brain’s white matter, the tissue that connects the gray matter of the brain.
“We have detected some changes in the white matter,” Whitlow said. “And the importance of those changes is that the more exposure you have to head impacts, the more change you have.”
Young players who did not have concussions were also found to have been impacted by repeated hits. Brain changes were found even after a single season of playing the sport.
So far, doctors are not cautioning parents against letting their children play football since there are still some unclear areas following the study. Doctors don’t know if these changes will continue as the boys play football. They also don’t know what long-term impact the repeated blows to the head will have on the players.
Still, some parents say the sport is worth the risk — for now — because of the joy it brings to their children. Football also encourages their kids to stay on top of their grades.
Kindra Ritzie-Worthy has two sons who play football. She says they take their footballs everywhere they go. One even sleeps with his ball.
“Worth the risk?” she told NBC. “I say absolutely.”