New concussion protocol to protect NFL players

Many precautions are in place to protect football players, but the number of concussions in the NFL continues to rise. There were more than 1,500 confirmed concussions in the NFL the past six years, with the most being listed in 2017, since the NFL started sharing the information.  The numbers range from 212 to 291 concussions per year.

We talked to a local expert about measures to help prevent serious injuries. Whether school-age or professional ball players, brain injuries often leave longterm effects on athletes.  Doctors warn, it can range from dementia and Alzheimer's to depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE.  CTE can spark emotional instability and a host of problems but can only be diagnosed now by studying brain tissue after death. Researchers are hopeful that new diagnostic techniques, through imaging, like MRI, may change this someday soon. 

Dr. Summer Ott believes new protocols in place will help lower these numbers, because education is now starting at the student level.  She's the Director of the Concussion Program at The Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute and works with all types of athletes.

"I have served as an NFL Neuro-Psychological Consultant the past ten seasons, and I've really seen all of the safe guards that they are evoking.  They've really worked with a lot of professionals from several different disciplines to provide the education down to the youth level, but also to manage the concussions on game day," says Dr. Ott.

That includes prevention, starting with helmets.

"While it's important to recognize that there is no concussion-proof helmet, the NFL has recently done a lot of lab testing with bio-chemical engineers to come up with helmets that are more protective of the athlete," explains Dr. Ott. 

The NFL has limited contact on the field to try to prevent the problem, plus its concussion protocol now states a player must be immediately removed from the field, if they suspect a concussion.

The problem is also a concern for young athletes. The Centers for Disease Control says fifteen percent of high school students across the country have suffered a concussion in the past year.  That's why even more is being done to shield brains, including a new blood test to better diagnose concussions.

The Food and Drug Administration says it detects proteins in brain cells that leak into the blood stream after head trauma.

Doctors are also looking at a saliva test to help better diagnose concussions. Researchers are even looking at an app to help better diagnose the problem, by detecting small changes in the pupils.

Specialists, on and off the field, are also closely monitoring professional players.

"We have added neuro-trauma consultants to the lead booth, so not only do we have neuro-trauma consultants on either sideline, but also in the booth looking at video as things happen, so sometimes things aren't obvious on the sideline, but it is in terms of video and we can pull athletes then and evaluate for a concussion," says Dr. Ott.

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