Youth Football Study

CIPT helped fund an important study that was recently published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering and comprised 111 youth football players ages 6 to 18 – the largest ever conducted. Numerous studies in this area have been done on high school and college players, but those findings do not necessarily apply to younger players.

The researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Virginia Tech found that contact in practice, not games, was the most significant variable when the number and force of head impacts incurred over the course of a season were measured. They concluded that less contact during practice could mean a lot less exposure to head injuries for young football players.

Media coverage of the study included:
New York Times 
NFL.com
Science Daily

For more details about the study:
“Though more than 70 percent of the football players in the United States are under age 14, there is no clear, scientifically based understanding of the effect of repeated blows to the head in young players,” said Steven Rowson, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences and senior author of the study.

Coaching style also had a major influence on factors such as the types of drills used in practice and the plays called in games, which would likely contribute to the differences in the head impact exposure that players experienced, the authors reported.

“It is striking that you can cut head impacts for a player in half just by modifying practice, and it does not seem to change the game,” said Alexander Powers, M.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery at Wake Forest Baptist and co-author of the study. “This may be very important in kids because their brains are still developing.”

The researchers used instrumentation in players’ helmets to gather data throughout a season of youth football games and practices. The sensors were installed inside the helmet so that they remained in contact with the head throughout the duration of head impact, allowing for measurement of head acceleration rather than that of the helmet. Data from the sensors were transmitted wirelessly to a computer on the sideline.

The key finding was that substantial differences existed among the three teams for both frequency and intensity of the impacts. For the entire season, players on team A experienced an average of 37 to 46 percent fewer impacts than players on teams B and C.

“We hope that the findings will help improve the safety of youth football through rule changes to limit contact in practices, coach training and equipment design, especially in developing youth-specific helmets to better reduce accelerations from head impacts,” Rowson said.

The primary reason for experiencing less impacts was that team A had fewer practices during the season than teams B and C. In addition, team A competed in a league that had implemented Pop Warner rule changes, including a limit on contact during practice sessions. Teams B and C had no such restrictions.

“We would ultimately like to understand how these repetitive head impacts may affect the brain over the course of a season, career, or even a lifetime of football so that we can better determine how we can reduce head impact exposure and keep kids safe,” said Jillian Urban, a graduate student that participated in the research.

More research and continued funding of this project is necessary to find answers and fully understand the risk to youth players.

Co-authors are Jillian Urban, M.S., Joseph Maldjian, M.D., ChristopherWhitlow, M.D., Alexander Powers, M.D., Joel Stitzel, Ph.D., ElizabethDavenport, B.S., of Wake Forest Baptist; Stefan Duma, Ph.D., Steven Rowson,Ph.D., Bryan Cobb, M.S. of Virginia Tech.