Group Encourages Counting Hits to Prevent Concussions
Emily Attwood — Athletic Business Associate Editor

New emphasis is being placed on the number of head impacts a player suffers during a game rather than the intensity of the hit. The Indiana-based Sports Legacy Institute on Friday announced its “Hit Count” proposal, aimed at reducing the number of concussions and amount of brain trauma suffered by youth athletes. Based on the “Pitch Count” model used in baseball to reduce the risk of overuse injuries in pitchers, the Hit Count model would set a limit for the number of hits to the head a young athlete can undergo during a period of time.

“Professional and college sports organizations, including the National Football League (NFL) and the Ivy League, have taken aggressive steps to reduce sub-concussive brain trauma exposure, but those steps are not being adopted at youth levels where athletes are most at risk,” said SLI co-founder Chris Nowinski in a press release. The NFL has policies in place aimed at reducing the frequency of hard hits during practice and games, unlike youth sports, where the number of hard hits a player endures is rarely monitored.

SLI may find support for its model in the results of a two-year study of high school football players conducted by the Purdue Neurotrauma Group and summarized in a paper appearing this month in the Journal of Biomechanics. The group’s research suggests that each hit to the head an athlete suffers during a game affects their brain activity, and that the buildup of prior damage can be a greater determinant in whether a player suffers a concussion than the force of a hit.

“The most important implication of the new findings is the suggestion that a concussion is not just the result of a single blow, but it’s really the totality of blows that took place over the season,” said Eric Nauman, a coauthor of the paper and associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue. “The one hit that brought on the concussion is arguably the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Whether a player suffered a concussion or not, brain imaging scans showed that repetitive hits to the head caused brain activity changes in the areas of the brain associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease currently affecting more than 20 former NFL players and commonly seen in athletes involved in impact sports such as football, hockey, rugby and soccer.

The Purdue Neurotrauma Group plans to continue its research, both monitoring participants of the original study for evidence of permanent changes in brain structure and expanding their scope to include more high school football players and girls’ soccer players. The group’s future research may help establish safety guidelines specifying the number of hits a player can receive during a period of time, exactly what the SLI is calling for with its Hit Count White Paper, which outlines the project’s goals and a strategy for implementation. SLI hopes to have Hit Counts in use by youth organizations by 2013.