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MU Health Care takes first steps in addressing football's concussion crisis

MU Health Care has announced its intent to start a sports concussion clinic to address and treat the ever-rising number of head injuries from football.

Dr. Komal Ashraf, a neurologist at MU Health Care, said concussions have actually become such a big issue, the health care company is opening the clinic to get ahead of the curve.

The center, which will be in Columbia, will focus on “early evaluation and intervention” when it comes to diagnosing and educating patients on head injuries.

"It's a combined effort with neurology and orthopedics and PMNR [physical medicine and rehabilitation] and our rehab services," Dr. Ashraf said.

Concussions, at all levels, are not a new phenomenon. At the highest level, the NFL didn’t even acknowledge the link between football and concussions until 2009, despite being under fire for it since 1994.

High school and youth football are no different, especially here in Missouri. All 50 states have a concussion protocol for student athletes. Most commonly, the protocol calls for the athlete to be taken out of the game immediately, educated on concussions while they recover and are only able to return to play after being cleared by a doctor and passing a test.

Missouri, however, is the first state in the country to take an extra step in concussion safety. In August 2011, law passed making it the only state that requires schools to actually track and report student concussions in a log in order to examine the direction of the trend of football concussions.

It's overseen by the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS).

But how do we protect players without ruining the game of football? It is a physical sport after all. Dr Ashraf says, education.

"Patient education is very important in all fields of medicine," Dr. Ashraf explained. "It's important for prevention and also within the teams so that they can be the first to recognize signs and symptoms of a concussion."

Younger age groups especially are more vulnerable to concussions and have a more difficult time recovering. When you repeat concussions, you can actually lose brain matter.

“Unfortunately there is no magic number for that," Dr. Ashraf said. "We have to take into consideration the age of the patient, their activity level, and how their recovery is between concussions. People who have repeated concussions, we can see injury to the brain and that can actually result in volume loss and will present itself with mood changes, headaches and overall difficulty for that person to be productive.”

While all sports can come with injury, the correlation between concussions and playing football is too high to be ignored. According to the MSHSAA, 33.5% of all football injuries were a concussion during the 2020-2021 season.

It amounted to 1,369 diagnosed head injuries. The next highest sport was cheerleading with 345.

Cole Blackburn, a coach for Hickman High School athletics said it doesn't matter if helmets are redesigned or new rules are implemented.

“You can tweak the helmets and make all the rules you want, but there’s always going to be that odd hit that smacks your head into the ground," Blackburn said.

"It’s the nature of the game and if you ask these kids, they all want to be here. It’s all about the risks the students and their parents are willing to take,” Blackburn continued

Concussions are also affecting enrollment. Fewer kids are signing up to play football.

A report from the National Federation of High School Associations uncovered that youth football numbers are declining, and quickly. From 2008 to 2019, the number of kids registered to play youth or school tackle football decreased from 2.5 million to 1.9 million.

Cedric Alvis, head coach of the Hickman Kewpies football team, said while he hasn’t noticed the decline in enrollment, he has noticed the increase in head injuries.

“As a coach, I know what [the players] look like, so anytime you come to the sideline and you are not responding the way I need you to or something doesn’t look right, I’d rather be safe than sorry," Alvis said.

According to Coach Alvis, however, football is moving in the right direction compared to just a few years ago.

"It's a style of play thing," Alvis explained. "We teach the kids how to tackle at the legs instead of head to head. It's a genetic thing too, everybody is different and players are becoming more aware of their playing styles to keep themselves safe."