Tuesday, June 3, 2014

It's All in Your Head

Fair warning: this is a football post. Kind of.  No, I have not had a stroke or been possessed by the ghost of Walter Camp.  Also, for all my friends across the pond, when I say football, I am referring to the American game that hardly ever involves using feet to advance the ball.

This post really is about football. Kind of.
I saw an article on the CNN website, reporting that Dan Marino is suing the NFL over concussions. Many former NFL players have joined together in a class action lawsuit, suing the league over the long-term health impacts of concussions. They claim that the NFL had known for years that there was a link between concussions and long term neurological issues and did nothing to prevent further injury.

Because I have experience with both concussions and neurological issues, of course I was curious. And, as it turns out, I now have helmets and full contact sports in my life. So, yeah. I have a vested interest in this topic.

We will save the discussion about tort reform for another post. Let’s also table the issues of personal responsibility and common sense. I think most people know that if you repeatedly ram your head into a wall, there will be consequences. But anyway…

I have a bit of experience with concussions. A couple years ago, Kidlet’s daycare called me while I was at work, telling me that he wasn’t feeling well. When I asked what was wrong, they said he was complaining of nausea.

Now, being nauseous is Kidlet’s go-to symptom when he wants to “be sick.” Which sometimes nets him a day off of school or a night sleeping in my bed. So, when daycare called, I didn’t rush right over. Kinda wish they had mentioned he had collided heads with another kid on the playground.
When I arrived to pick him up, he was sitting by the toilet, looking glum but otherwise fine. No cuts, no bruises, no goose eggs. But when my sister arrived to pick up her own kids, I started to suspect that strange things were afoot.

Kidlet kept asking me for soup. It didn’t strike me as a particularly odd request. I often serve him soup when he is sick. If his tummy was upset, soup seemed logical to me.

But then his cousin started teasing him and mimicking the whiny “I want soup” voice. Kidlet can quickly become very annoyed with his cousin. And—at that moment—his cousin was being pretty annoying.

But Kidlet did nothing. He didn’t get frustrated, or yell back, or tattle. Those would be the behaviors I would have expected.

He just asked for soup again.

And that was the point I drove him to the hospital. We were there the whole night while he was getting scanned and x-rayed and fed slushies. The verdict? A “doozy” of a concussion, requiring a couple days of being still and quiet.

You know what happened to the kid he ran into? That kid got a black eye. And was perfectly fine, looking tough and ready for fight club.
The difference between a hospitalization and a bruise? The way the kid’s noggin absorbed the energy of the hit.

Here is the football problem, as I understand it. Please chime in if I am misunderstanding or misrepresenting.

A helmet is a great thing to have on when you hit something with your head. It absorbs a great deal of the energy of the impact. It protects your skull from being fractured. But, in reality, it isn’t your skull that needs protecting. It is your brain.

A skull fracture isn’t fun by any stretch. And every once in a while, a skull fracture can have a catastrophic outcome. But a skull fracture isn’t the same thing as a concussion.

Here is how the ER doctor explained it to me: If you shake an egg with enough force, you can scramble the egg without cracking the shell. When you are wearing a helmet, your skull is the shell and your brain is what is getting scrambled.

When you hit your head, your skull absorbs the force. When you hit your head while wearing a helmet, the helmet absorbs some—if not most—of the force. But because the rest of that hit’s energy is not exhausted on the skull, the brain spends it by shifting and bouncing around the inside of the head.

And that is a concussion.
Worse still, concussions are like compounded interest paid by your gray matter. The ER doctor told me that they stack. He suggested that Kidlet take it easy for a while and not involve himself in activities with higher-than-normal risk of hitting his head. Because the second concussion is always worse than the first. And the third is worse still. The brain doesn’t really heal like a deep cut or a torn ligament.

Trust me. I am now an expert on brains.

As an added feature (not a bug!), non-head injuries can be caused by helmets. Helmets can inflict a great deal of damage with little consequence to the hitter. Career-ending knee injuries have been caused by an opponent’s polycarbonate-protected head driving into a player’s leg.

We are really quite amazing. The human body is a stunning example of design. We walk around with a natural helmet protecting our delicate brain.

Seat belts are great. I don’t want to live without pasteurization. I am a rabid and vocal supporter of vaccinations. But—maybe—sometimes we need to admit that we just can’t improve on nature.

Most of us carry phones in our pocket with more computing power than what was used for the Apollo Space mission. In the insane pace of today’s technological advances, it is hard to remember that sometimes the answer can be quite simple: Step back from the technology.

Modern day helmets are excellent at saving players from fracturing their skulls. They protect ears, jaws, teeth, noses. But, not only do they not protect the brain, they may be causing more harm than good.*
The NFL and the company that manufactures the helmets for the league—Riddel—are developing prototype headgear that include crush zones, impact alarms, and better skull protection. But… is that really the correct solution?

Talk to the physicists and they will give you an answer. Don’t make a better helmet. Go back to the old-fashioned leather helmets. Leather helmets protect the head, ears, and scalp of a player, without interfering with the job of the skull to protect the brain. They provide instant feedback and remind players not to lead with their head. They help prevent ancillary injuries.

And, lets face it, they look pretty badaass.

There is precedent for this in the sports world. Rugby. Martial arts. Murderball. The entire continent of Australia.

Aside—OMG, have you not seen Murderball? Rent it immediately.

OK, nerds. Want to listen to something really cool? Go download Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk podcast titled The Physics of Football. I think you will find it very interesting.

Bonus fun fact:  From the beginning. helmets were painted with team colors, logos, and player positions. In 1948, a player named Fred Gehrke—halfback for the Los Angeles Rams—painted a horn design on all of the Rams' helmets. Gehrke studied art at the University of Utah.

Derby girls decorate their helmets too. But we prefer to dress them in panties.
*Of course you need to wear a helmet while riding motorcycles, bobsleds, or bicycles. When you can be hit by something that can move faster than a human, protect your coconut.

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