NEW YORK – Entering the year with a renewed promise of protecting players from head injuries, the NFL heightened fines for helmet-to-helmet hits and put in place the ‘crowning’ rule. To many, players included, the guidelines in place to limit brain and head injuries would lead to increased knee injuries. After all if players can’t hit ‘em high where else can they go?
But leaders of the NFL’s physician society released their collection of data regarding player injuries in 2013 and the results showed an astounding 13% decrease in concussions from 2012 and minute decrease in the number of knee injuries sustained.
Throughout the one-hour presentation the team of doctors discussed topics ranging from 2013’s new safety regulations, integration of new useful technology to better diagnose injuries in real time, furthering their job market to better assist team physicians in properly diagnosing injuries as well as touching on future grants that hope to aid research in head and trauma issues for current and retired players.
“Our committees of independent experts, collaborations with organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and joint programs with organizations such as the U.S. Army drive important scientific research, provide resources for our players and their families and inform policies and rules of our game,” John York, San Francisco 49ers Co-Chairman and Chairman of the NFL Owners’ Health & Safety Committee, said Thursday afternoon.
The 2013 season saw the implementation of a few new medical aids to further assist teams in diagnosing injuries in real time. In addition to the 26 medical staff members present at every NFL game, there is the independent athletic trainer. This position is located in the press box of the stadium and is the ‘eye in the sky’, so to speak. He or she notifies on-field medical staff of possible injuries sustained that they may not be able to see because of their vantage point or inability to slowed down TV replays.
Additionally the introduction to the unaffiliated neuro-trauma consultant assists, not replaces, the team physician in diagnosing brain injuries and possible concussions. These consultants are available to assit team medical staffs in the diagnosis and management of suspect concussions or spine injuries during the game. And given a 2012 NFLPA survey that stated 78% of players don’t trust team doctors, the neuro-trauma consultant is not employed by the team nor the league, rather the NFLPS.
“There hasn’t been any issues regarding the unaffiliated neuro-trauma consultants stepping on the toes of team physicians. They are solely there to provide assistance to the physician in diagnosing brain and head injuries,” Dr. Mitchel Berger, NFL Head, Neck & Spine committee member and 49ers unaffiliated neuro-trauma consultant, said.
The incorporation of updated technology has further aided team physicians and players alike in diagnosing injuries in real-time thanks to electronic medical records that hold a player’s entire medical history — ranging from x-rays, test results, exam notes, even their allergies — on to electronic tablets for quick reference if he is sidelined with an injury.
Piloted by eight teams in the 2013 season — the Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers — physicians will use an app to review a step-by-step checklist of protocols and the injured player’s concussion baseline tests. The test occurs in real time with the medical staff seeing results of the tests within 6-8 minutes.
Those are just some of the advances the NFLPS and NFL have made in 2013 to increase player safety as well as implementing new safety rules such as the elimination of offensive players lowering their helmets to break tackles and the introduction of mandatory leg pads for all players. The research data collected and explained at the symposium dictates that the steps that have been taken have halted the climbing rate of head injuries in a three-year span.
In 2011 the number of concussions in preseason and the regular season, whether it be games or practices, was 252 separate instances. By 2013 that number dropped by 13% to 228. With the elimination of helmet-to-helmet hits and the integration of the Crowning Rule between the 2012 and 2013 seasons saw that concussions impacted by helmets dropped from 117 to 90 — a 23% decrease.
“All we’re doing is re-introducing the core fundamentals that the game is built on. Now it’s more important than ever to lead with your shoulder pads,” ESPN analyst and former NFL player Merril Hoge said.
The problem that arises with a stronger emphasis on avoiding helmet hits, however, is the perceived notion that if players can’t hit high they’re going to aim lower — at another player’s knee, their livelihood essentially. With the help of statistical analysis Miller stated that the data shows the notion is a common fallacy.
DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA president, had an appreciation of the NFL’s results but would not go as far as to say that things are better.
“I think any decision made should be rooted in what we know and not what we think. I went through the most recent data on injuries a few weeks ago and I continue to go through it. I think it’s important to look at the data and to understand whether data is statistically true or not and make decisions based on what you know,” Smith said Thursday.
The numbers show that in the last three years ACL and MCL injuries have stayed relatively the same (ACL: 42 in 2011, 45 in 2012, 37 in 2013)(MCL: 125 in 2011, 101 in 2012, 100 in 2013). The players that are usually at the highest risk of knee injuries are undoubtedly the skill positions — running back, wide receiver and tight end. However the data showed that there has been neither a spike nor dip in skill position knee injuries over the previous three years.
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