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Catastrophic Brain Injuries Hit All-Time High in H.S. Football

Thirteen high school football players were left permanently disabled as a result of a football-related brain injury in 2011, the most ever recorded in one year, according to the latest annual report from the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.

Since 1977, the NCAA has provided the center funding to study catastrophic injuries, or "football injuries which resulted in brain or spinal cord injury or skull or spine fracture," from preps to pros.

From 1984 to 2007, the number of catastrophic injuries for high school football players never reached double digits in a given year, according to the center's data. Then, in both 2008 and 2009, 10 high schoolers were left permanently disabled as a result of a football-related brain injury.

The number dipped to five in 2010, before reaching the all-time high of 13 this past year.

"These 2011 numbers are the highest since we began collecting catastrophic brain-injury data," said Fred Mueller, the lead author of the report and the center's director, in a statement. "This is a major problem."

Want proof? Read Pages 14 through 17 of the report. It's a list of each catastrophic injury in high school football last year, including information about whether the student-athlete ever fully recovered. Many didn't.

To combat the rise in such injuries, the study authors suggest coaches having increased awareness, emphasizing the need to eliminate helmet-to-helmet contact, and teaching safer tackling techniques. "SHOULDER BLOCK AND TACKLE WITH THE HEAD UP," they write (in all caps), "KEEP THE HEAD OUT OF FOOTBALL."

They also say referees can contribute by calling more helmet-to-helmet penalties when they occur, which should spur players and coaches to "get the message and discontinue this type of play." And, whenever possible, they recommend schools having an athletic trainer certified by the National Athletic Trainers' Association present during practice and games. Currently, less than half of U.S. high schools have a NATA-certified athletic trainer available to them.

"All of these measures are important if we want to continue to make a positive impact on the game," said Mueller. "We have to continue research in this area. Accurate data not only indicate problem spots, but they also help us offer appropriate precautions and reveal the adequacy of our preventive measures."

The study authors didn't believe that increased concussion awareness led to the all-time high in catastrophic brain injuries, noting that the center's definition of catastrophic injuries hadn't changed.

The report was co-authored by Dr. Robert Cantu, chair of surgery and chief of neurological service at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., who's one of the leading experts on youth concussions in sports.

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