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Should You Let Your Kids Play Football?

Unless you are living under a rock, you know that the biggest sports event of the year is upon us.  It is no secret that the popularity (and profitability) of the National Football League has never been higher.  However, there is an issue that is getting talked about more and more in the media, the courtroom, and living rooms all over America: player safety.

Right now there is an ongoing lawsuit involving the NFL and thousands of former players regarding traumatic brain injuries sustained by players over the careers that have plagued them well after retirement.  If you ask me, anyone who thought that running full speed into other human beings for a living wasn’t dangerous is just plain naive.  However, these people are claiming that the NFL played down the long term effects of playing football and even went so far to put players at risk by allowing them to play through injuries when it was not safe to do so.

One could argue that these players knew exactly what they were doing and were well paid to do so.  However, just like any worker in America, their employers must do their best to maintain a safe work environment.  It is a fascinating debate.  But what about those who played high school and college and never got a big paycheck?  What about them?  This is the question concerning parents across the country.  Can just playing high school football cause enough damage to haunt someone for life?  At this point, we do not quite know for sure.

I played football as a kid and I love the sport to this day.  I follow my college and pro teams religiously.  I play catch with my wife and kids in the back yard and at the beach.  Granted, I'm not laying my wife out with a bone crushing hit on a crucial 3rd down play, am I?  That would be a problem.

However, I did start playing tackle football in the 6th grade and played all through high school.  In fact, football was the reason I got into chiropractic in the first place because I needed a chiropractor after a serious neck injury.

I was a running back so I took a lot of hits.  One in particular made me so fuzzy that I walked to the other team’s huddle after the play.  The ref saw it and sent me to the sideline.  After I “cleared out the cobwebs” I was sent back in a few plays later.  I hardly remember it, but when we watched the game film on Monday, it was plain as day and we all had a good laugh about it.  But looking back it’s pretty obvious that I suffered a minor concussion.  I say "minor" because to my knowledge I didn't suffer any after effects.  I'll never know for sure because I was never evaluated.  No big deal, right?  Well, although that was the worst one, I got my “bell rung”  probably a dozen or so times over the course of my playing days.  Thousands of guys who played high school football could say the same thing.

Apparently, these hits accumulate and cause a condition called CTE.  This stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.  This causes progressive degeneration of the nervous system.   Symptoms include dementia, memory loss, aggression, confusion, and depression, which may occur within months of the trauma or many decades later.  Scary stuff.

Because of advances in nutrition and strength training, football players at every level are bigger, stronger, and faster so the forces involved in these hits are increasing putting the head (and the precious cargo inside of it) at greater risk.  Many years ago, the football helmet switched from being used as protection to being used as a weapon.  As a result, most bad collisions in football are "helmet to helmet."

Personally, I think the way to fix this is to get rid of the helmets and hard pads.  You still would want to protect the head from cuts while offering protection from blunt trauma so the players could wear something akin to what some rugby players wear.  That will force players to tackle with their shoulders instead of launching their bodies into the air while leading with the head.  A change that drastic will not come for a long time (hopefully before the NFL is bled dry from lawsuits), so that won't affect Johnny playing football next fall.

To be fair, EVERY sport has risks.  Head injuries occur in soccer, basketball, and even cheerleading.  Rather than live in fear, you must accept the fact that LIFE is inherently risky.  Stepping out your front door exposes you to all sorts of risks, so keep that in mind.  Everyone has seen a "helicopter mom" who constantly hovers around their children when they are playing at a park to make sure NOTHING happens to them.  In the long run, this is not a good thing.  Kids are supposed to get cuts and bruises as they grow up.  This is how they learn.  The last thing you want to do is instill crippling fear in your kids.  Dating will take care of that part later 🙂

If you have a child that wants to play football, you must assess the risks and make an informed decision as a family.  Once the decision is made, be proactive in order to reduce the risk of serious consequences.  Here are some things you want to consider before your son (or daughter as girl's football is popping up at schools across the country) suits up next fall:

1.  Proper Equipment

Don’t allow your child to wear a helmet that doesn’t fit quite right because you found it cheaper on Craigslist.  Make sure to have the equipment fitted by a professional who knows what they are doing.  Also consider a higher quality mouth guard to help protect against concussions, as well.  Nothing can prevent injuries, but lowering the risk is well worth it.

2.  Proper Training

Make sure your child is participating in a sound training program.  This includes a program that is well-rounded and ensures good muscle balance.  Most high school football programs have cutting edge training programs compared to years ago.  Also make sure that your young athlete is cooling down and stretching after workouts and getting proper nutrition to help them recover and avoid overtraining.  If you have questions, you could consult a certified strength and conditioning coach or sports medicine doc.  There are multiple online resources for good information on these topics, as well.

3.  Proper Care for Injuries

Talk to your child about proper communication regarding injuries.  If they suffer ANY type of injury, they need to speak up and tell you.  Then have them checked by a licensed practitioner.  Make sure your child understands that just because their coach (or friend) tells them to “suck it up” that doesn’t mean that they should ignore symptoms.  I see a lot of kids with back and neck pain in my practice and most of them have dealt with it for a while before treatment.  However, once chiropractic treatment has started they do just fine and are able to continue playing.

The good news in this story is that there is a ton of research going on when it comes to football injuries (particularly head trauma).  Make an informed decision on what you feel is best for your child.  Football is a great game that teaches mental toughness, teamwork, and discipline.  The vast majority of children who play never suffer any serious injuries.  Just be mindful about your child’s health and have them checked at the first sign of an injury.

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Dr. PlemonDr. Jared Plemon BS, DC is a doctor of chiropractic at Zehr Chiropractic in Norton Shores, Michigan.  He specializes in the treatment of neck pain, back pain, and extremity pain utilizing cutting edge, non-manipulative chiropractic techniques.  He blogs about nutrition, exercise, and how chiropractic care fits in with the overall health landscape.  He lives in West Michigan with his wife and two children.

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