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October 31, 2012 10:03 PM

Concussions: Hard-Hitting Research

Sioux Falls, SD

In recent years, more attention has been placed on the prevention of head injuries in sports.

That's particularly true in football.  On the professional level, the NFL is spending tens of million of dollars on concussion research.  College football has followed with new rules.  The same can be said on the high school level.  But now the concussion work has trickled all the way down to some of the youngest players.  South Dakota Junior Football is on the front lines of cutting-edge research.

As team quarterback, 12-year-old Max Erickson loves the sport of football.  While he and his teammates are more concerned about touchdowns and tackles, it was a recent routine play that Erickson and his family will never forget.

"I was running the ball and I was running to the side and these two people came up and hit me on each side and I just got all tingly in my arms and my ears were ringing and I had a big headache," Max said.

"It's pretty scary.  He wasn't knocked out but when he was coming off the field he was holding his head," Kim Erickson said.

Max was soon diagnosed with a concussion.  That would mean no football for some time, and in school, he couldn't take tests.

"I couldn't read. I couldn't write.  I couldn't do all of the main stuff like all of the kids; I could just sit and listen," Max said.

But Max would perform a list of tests outside of school.  It turns out that football-caused head injury may be the most documented concussion for someone his age.  That's because Max is one of 20 players to be part of research for the National Institute for Athletic Health and Performance at Sanford Health.  The study focuses on 7th and 8th graders and is the first of its kind.

"We're particularly interested in this group because this information has never been reported for this age group of 7th and 8th graders.  And it's an interesting age group because there is such a difference in the physical development, growth and size of these players," Associate Director Thayne Munce said.

"Some of the boys that Max plays against now are big boys.  This year definitely we've seen the difference in size, so it goes through your mind," Kim said.

Here's how the research works.  The 20 participants wear special helmets.  While they look the same, the research helmets are fitted with special sensors inside the padding known as accelerometers.

"These accelerometers allow us to measure the number of head impacts, the magnitude of those head impacts as well as the location of those impacts on the head," Munce said.

That information is tracked by equipment on the sideline of every practice and game for the entire season.  Now that the season has wrapped up, the data will be compiled.

"There's a certain risk to playing football.  Every time you strap on the helmet and go out and play the game of football.  How big is that risk?  We certainly don't know at this point and that's why we're doing this research," Munce said.

Since Max has a doctor-diagnosed concussion, he'll also be used to track the recovery process of the injury.  Each participant went through a series of tests to start the season. Max is now going through those same tests to show the immediate and lasting effects.  Without the information from these tests, Max may not have received the proper time to heal.

"For us, we probably would have been, 'You need to get your schoolwork done.  You need to do this.  You need to do that.'  When you can have the facts all right there, it's been a blessing to us," Kim said.

Max's parents even admit they may have let him back on the playing field too soon.

As for the study, the hope of this research isn't to scare families away from the sport; rather, those behind the work want to make the game safer.

"This information will be used to help make recommendations for the way practices are conducted, the way form and technique are taught to players as well as equipment manufacturers to guide their development of safer equipment," Munce said.

And for Max, he plans to return to the football field as soon as he's cleared by doctors and his family.

"I really didn't think I'd get a concussion.  I thought it would be fun to be involved in the study, and if I did, it would be cool to see how hard I got hit and what places," Max said.

But today, Max now knows that information, and with more research and analysis, his concussion could help prevent others from suffering a similar injury in the years to come.

Researchers are still finalizing how they will follow up next season.  One option would be to follow the same participants as they move to the next level of the sport.  They could also track another 7th and 8th grade team or move to a younger level of players.

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