The NFL season has been over for more than a week now, and I looked back on the stories of the season and one topic seemed to dominate the headlines every Monday morning: concussions. Week after week, more players’ heads absorbed huge hits and the NFL announced that the concussions reported were up 21% this season from last.
The word “reported” here stands out to me. Having been an athlete over the course of my life, I realize that many people will not disclose injuries to coaches, trainers, or teammates for fear of being kept off the field. Of course, the stakes are much higher in the NFL than in other professional sports, where careers are much shorter and contracts aren’t guaranteed. Players feel they have to maximize their playing days, make sure they stay on team rosters, and get their paychecks.
The average NFL career is under 4 years, and that players are vested after three seasons and earn a $470 monthly credit for each year they played once they reach age 55. An additional 401(k) plan, the NFL Player Second Career Savings Plan, offers a matching contribution of up to 200%. For players with four seasons or more of service, there is also a $65,000 annuity bonus. And, the NFL pension structure is not equipped for proper healthcare to cover the needs of many former players who require long term care due to disabling injuries suffered while playing the game.
Preventing and treating concussions has become a topic of discussion not only among physicians and researchers, but also throughout the country where many states are adopting laws to help protect the children from concussions. I am pleased about the increased progress in trying to simplify the immediate treatment and response from tools such as being able to detect concussions immediately on the sidelines. Furthermore, there is continued research into safer helmets that protect more than just the skull from a strong impact, but also the brain can hopefully bring forth a feasible solution that can be used on the field.
Analysis of patient medical records also can play a large role in the diagnosis and treatment of concussions. Also important is identifying the symptoms of less known but lingering head trauma that plays a large role as a risk factor in suffering a more significant concussion. There needs to also be a more strict set of guidelines surrounding how quickly players can return to the field after suffering a concussion. Neurologists will have to assess the patient’s medical history, and combine that knowledge with collateral data gathered and stored in electronic medical records (EMR) to diagnose, treat, and hopefully prevent more severe conditions.
Professional athletic organizations such as the NFL and NHL need to follow suit with what organizations such as the International Rugby Board are doing to help get the players suffering these injuries off the field. Our good friends at the Sports Legacy Institute here in Massachusetts have already done great work towards raising awareness and taking action to prevent, research, and treat brain trauma. With the incorporation of the right healthcare information technology and research, there is no reason why the number of athletes suffering should continue to rise, and hopefully we can start to see a drastic decrease in this debilitating condition.