The discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is fairly new, and as a society we’re still coming to grips with it. In retrospect, it’s quite amazing how casual we’ve been about head injuries, with high schoolers routinely told to “walk it off” after a hard hit. Such an approach was rarely questioned. Now, however, awareness of CTE is beginning to affect how we perceive participation in many activities, ranging from firefighting to military service. This is leading to a reassessment of high school sports and just what risks may be involved.
To begin with, the current body of medical knowledge holds that CTE results from hard blows to the head -- not just once or twice but many times. When one sees it in, say professional football players, we’re talking about incredibly powerful hits from huge, extremely strong athletes. So if you slip on some ice and hit your head you shouldn’t assume you’re going to get CTE a few years hence.
It’s very difficult to know what sort of damage a teenager sustains while partaking in high school sports. Not everyone sustains hard blows to the head, and not everyone gets them frequently. However, a new study suggests that just one season of high school football may be enough to cause the kind of brain abnormalities associated with CTE in later life. However, these findings are preliminary, and should not be taken as directly causing CTE or other chronic brain problems. All research is still relatively new; more time is needed to fully understand the interaction between blows to the head and any resulting injuries.
One potentially heartening study may bring a bit of hope. If you think back to your classmates in high school, how many went on to have early-onset dementia or signs of traumatic brain injury? Is there even one? Well, the Mayo Clinic recently published a study that looked at students who took part in high school sports in the 1940s and 1950s and found that, on average, they were no more likely to have brain issues later in life. This suggests that, while there may be risks involved (and data is still being gathered on that), there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. After all, high school athletics are known to offer a long list of benefits to physical and mental health. In addition to improving overall physical health, being active also helps combat stress, and often boosts grades.
In other words, there is, as yet, no reason to worry. However, in the long term, there may, depending on research, be changes in future to high school sports. For now, keep at it, have fun -- but exercise caution.