Is Football Dangerous?
A review by a chiropractor and retired college football offensive lineman.
If I only knew then, what I know now.
Over and over this phrase plays in my head when I think about my time playing football in college. So many of my former teammates wax nostalgic about the good ‘ole playing days. I’m more torn about my time as a 300 lb. offensive lineman.
Now that I’m a doctor of chiropractic, I have a much better understanding of the human body and the potential damage and injuries that often result in a lifetime of chronic pain and suffering or even death. And yet, I loved the sport. There are few other situations in life in which you will find a group of around 100 young men working from all different races, religions, and cultures working towards one goal in unison. But is it worth the risk?
Let’s examine football and the inherent risks in a sport requiring you to use your head as a weapon.
If you or your children are interested in playing football I encourage you to watch the movie “Concussion” with Will Smith. The story is based on real events of a medical doctor who uncovers a previously unrecognized progressive degenerative disease that is the result of severe or repeated blows to the head. Dr. Bennet Omalu is the forensic pathologist that discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in professional American football players. The movie chronicles Dr. Omalu’s struggle to get the NFL to recognize the inherent dangers of football.
In the movie, he makes a VERY compelling and logical assertion about the dangers of football by comparing the design of the skull and brain of a woodpecker who suffers no adverse effects despite slamming its beak and head against trees thousands of times a day. The design of the woodpecker’s brain places its tongue around the brain to protect it from the otherwise potentially concussive forces. The human brain has no such protective design. The problem with football is that it ignores this because playing football requires that you will sustain numerous blows to the head every game, especially for offensive and defensive lineman.
While many other sports can cause injuries there is a difference with football.
Injuries typically occur as a result of a mistake or overuse in most other sports. However, the very heart of every football play requires an action that, at its core, is resulting in potential injury. For example, you can play basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. and have not adverse effects from a well-played game. Football differs greatly in this aspect. The very nature of the game requires that you chronically injury yourself every play as an offensive or defensive lineman because part of that position is that you use your head as a weapon. You can have an entire career as an offensive or defensive football player without a traditional “injury” and still have devastating brain damage from playing football the way it’s taught to be played.
The bottom line is that most parents were tentative when it came to their children playing football due to the potential, albeit rare, of a spinal injury. While these this do happen, they are not common and typically easily protected from when teaching players to protect themselves with playing techniques that reduce the risk of these types of injuries. When investigating the potential for injury from football it is more prudent to look at the injuries that occur from normal and football activities as opposed to rare or even infrequent injuries that occurred by accidents while playing.
More than Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Injuries
CTE is certainly the kind of injury that occurs from normal football play. However, it is not the only damage that can be done to the human body from playing football while avoiding the fluke spinal cord, or more common knee, or shoulder injuries. Spinal deformation in the way of disc bulging, disc herniation and degenerative disc disease have a high morbidity for football players, again affecting linemen with a greater frequency than other positions.
As an offensive tackle in high school and college, I had the first-hand experience with the techniques required for this position. As a chiropractor, I have been able to better understand why this position is so destructive to the body. While many people may think that the bigger players exerting a larger force are just more prone to injury that is not likely the case. The problem is, once again, inherent in the technique required to perform as a lineman. With CTE lineman are more prone to this degenerative brain disorder because of the constant head impacts found on every play in the trenches. These blows to the head don’t stop there. The forces are distributed throughout the rest of the body, particularly the spine.
As a structurally focused chiropractor, I treat patients on a daily basis that have spinal injuries, including disc bulges, disc herniation, and most disc degeneration. These injuries or degenerative spinal conditions are almost always a result of abnormal distributions of load on the spine resulting in excessive wear and damage to one of more areas of the spine. To better understand these spinal injuries CLICK HERE. To summarize, an abnormal spinal shape or structure can happen from a myriad of issues including bad posture, repetitive motions, excessive forces into the spine, whiplash, slips, falls, car accidents etc. Even worse is when these things happen with an already abnormal spine.
The spine should be straight from the front and have three distinct curves when looking at it from the side. This design allows for even and balanced distribution of weight through the spinal vertebra, disc and facet joints. Without this ideal shape, the spine is more prone to injury due to the uneven stress on the spine. When I say uneven stress I mean that there is a LOT more stress on a particular part of the spine than there is supposed to be in the same way there is more stress on one side of an unaligned tire on a car. One tire is going to wear more on the side with more load and will eventually wear out and fail MUCH sooner than it is designed to.
The concept is the same for the spine which can lead to acute injuries from excessive stress on spinal discs in an already weakened state (disc herniation, disc bulge) due to abnormal alignment. Think of the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. This is more common with football linemen because if they do have an abnormal spinal shape they are they under more extreme spinal loading than your non-athletes, athletes in most other sports and even football players in other field positions. For anyone who’s played as a lineman in football, they understand that a key to playing this position effectively is to STAY LOW with your back flat to get better leverage on the opposing lineman. This crouched down position results in significant axial (head to foot) loading of the spine, which is exacerbated exponentially when that force is directed through the head and not just the arms and shoulders. It’s easy to see how an existing spinal weakness can cause a disc to blow when you consider that has excessive forces being put on the spine due to 1.) an abnormal spine which is then 2.) Loaded excessively from two +300lbs men going nearly head to head.
The great tragedy with many of these injuries is that many of them remain undiagnosed or mistreated. You can drive thousands of miles with a misaligned front end before the tire wears unevenly and ultimately fails. Just like with CTE, the effects of playing football as a lineman are often hidden until years or decades later. Most of my patients experience this because no one ever told them that their back pain, sciatica, neck pain, headaches, migraines, numbness or tingling in their arms or legs, disc bulge, disc herniation etc. were caused by that excessive wear from an abnormal spine. The risk is only exacerbated for football players and even more so for a lineman.
In my opinion, there is no greater team sport on the face of the planet than American football. It requires a sense of cooperation, trust and unity that surpasses any other sport or activity aside from the relationships you may build with other men fighting a war. However, at the end of the day, it’s important to realize that unlike any other team sport there are more inherent risks and costs that in the way of a potential brain and spinal damage that some may not be willing to pay.