Football season is a time when people worry a lot about head injuries – even in a sport where wearing a padded helmet is required when it is played as a full-contact activity.

And there’s good reason to be concerned. Football is a sport where concussions are reported at a rate twice that of the next most concussive sports — girls soccer and boys lacrosse, according to a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. What’s more, the study found concussion rates increased in several high school team sports every year from 1997-2008.

Concussions, also known as traumatic brain injuries, were reported in everything from wrestling, volleyball, cheerleading, baseball and softball.  The fact is that concussions can happen in even non-contact sports, such as skateboarding, skiing, BMX racing or surfing.

There are a lot of warning signs for a concussion, such as losing consciousness or becoming confused. For example, Troy Aikman suffered too many concussions during his storied career as a Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. In one game against the Washington Redskins, Troy was hauled off to the hospital in an ambulance after he answered a question wrong following a particularly jarring sack.

The question? What team are you playing against? His answer? Henrietta. As in Oklahoma. As in high school. Troy was hit so hard he was literally knocked back into his high school playing days.

That story may get a laugh, but it’s not funny when you or someone you know is the person dealing with a concussion. The danger in team sports is that a player with a concussion may not appear to have the obvious symptoms of a traumatic brain injury – such as being knocked unconscious, dizziness or temporary amnesia. The athlete may be allowed to continue to play, which could be catastrophic. The athlete could suffer a more serious brain injury or aggravate the concussion, leading to more serious brain trauma.

This is why it is important for coaches, athletic trainers and even student assistants pay close attention and monitor for signs of a concussion. If a player blacks out on the field, that’s an obvious sign something has gone wrong. But what if they appear fine and seem to just fall asleep on the bus ride home? Are they asleep or has the concussion finally caused them to lose consciousness?

It is almost impossible to die from a concussion, yet repeated exposure to mild head injuries can cause serious problems later in life – increased risk of Parkinson’s disease and dementia, for example.  Football players who suffer three or more concussions are at greater risk for clinical depression versus players who never had one, according to a 2007 article published in Neurosurgery.

Even a simple fall can lead cause a concussion. After a fall or other type of forceful impact, jolt or collision, consider whether the athlete is:

  • Confused or unsure of their surroundings
  • Answering questions slowly
  • Moving slowly
  • Showing mood swings or personality changes
  • Nauseous
  • Sensitive to light or noise
  • Unable to remember what happened before and/or after a collision
  • Unconscious

There are no guarantees but by having informed and vigilant staff, trainers and coaches, teams can reduce the danger posed by concussions.

Have fun. Play hard. And let’s all watch out for each other on the field.