Are contact sports putting our children’s brains at risk?

In the UK, the popularity of Martial Arts, Wrestling, Boxing, and other contact sports has been on a steady increase for years. The dojos and gymnasiums are full of amateur fighters of all ages, striving to be the best they can be, but at what cost to our brains?

There has been much in the news recently about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain, and Dr Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who first published evidence of CTE in an American Football player, has committed himself to getting the information out there to protect young people.

According to Dr Omalu, “What causes permanent brain damage is not just concussion. Brain damage is caused by brain injury; concussion is just a type of brain injury. So where I am leading you is, when you suffer traumatic brain injury, you begin to suffer the traumatic encephalopathic syndromes. The beginning of the traumatic encephalopathic syndromes is sub concussive injuries. The more you are exposed to sub concussive injuries the greater your risk of suffering brain damage. We do not now how many you would have to suffer to suffer brain damage, it varies among individuals. However we know that if you play a high impact high contact sport for example American Football, all it takes to suffer brain damage is one season. Studies show that if a child plays one season of football or the equivalent in mixed martial arts, you subject that child’s brain to sophisticated medical testing you would identify evidence of permanent brain damage. This is an epidemic. This is what I am doing with my life. I want parents to be aware, they do not know. Children can play non contact sports.”

What about head guards and protective clothing and removing head impact for children? Would that help? Not according to Dr Omlau.

“When you are standing and someone kicks your chest, because your head is connected to your chest by the neck, which is highly mobile, a kick to the chest would cause a sudden jerk to the head. This is all you need as the brain sits freely inside the skull. So when someone strikes to the trunk the energy causes your head to bounce on your neck, and your brain bounces around inside the skull. The issue is this happens over and over, so in one fight your brain could do that ten, twenty, thirty times.”

Adults are subjected to this too, so why is it so important for children? Dr Omlau explains:

“When it comes to adults in sport, adults are making their own decisions. No one is pointing a gun to your head and compelling you to play. This is a choice. Children cannot make that choice. This is why I believe we need legislative instruments to protect children, as we have done with smoking. Smoking is harmful, so no child should smoke. If an adult encourages a child to smoke, that adult can be indicted for child endangerment. So we need legislative tools to protect the children in these sports. Here in the US we are beginning to have such legislative tools. In some states you have to be a certain age to train in mixed martial arts. Boxing you must be a certain age to play. If you are an adult and make a child compete under the cut off age you can go to jail, or lose custody of your child.

As a physician my role is to protect the children. My opinion is children should engage in a non contact sport. That is safer for them. We should protect the intellect as they approach adulthood. Sports should not rob a child of their intellect. We talk of good health for whole life. Good health is no longer absence of disease; it is a state of well being. Sports should build up the health, the physical and mental health of a child. It is my strong position that children should not play these games: American Football, Mixed Martial arts, Ice hockey, Boxing, wrestling and rugby.
There is no question that anyone who plays these games has an increased risk of suffering traumatic encephalopathy. Anyone who refutes studies would be denying science. That is why my position has always been that any child under the age of eighteen should not be allowed to play, period.”

So what hope for the adults and children who have been training for years? The news isn’t good.
“We don’t have a cure. The best cure is prevention, as disappointing as that sounds”

Dr Omalu’s new book “Truth doesn’t have a side” is available from 17th of August 2017