Background: Catastrophic head injuries in football are rare but tragic events.
Purpose: To update the profile of catastrophic head injuries in high school and college football players and to describe relevant risk factors.
Study design: Case series; Level of evidence, 4.
Methods: We reviewed 94 incidents of severe football head injuries reported to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research during 13 academic years (September 1989 through June 2002).
Results: In the study period there were an average of 7.23 (standard deviation = 2.05) direct high school and college catastrophic head injuries in scholastic football participants per year. There were 0.67 injuries per 100 000 (95% confidence interval: 0.54, 0.81 per 100 000) high school and 0.21 injuries per 100 000 (95% confidence interval: 0.0, 0.49 per 100 000) college participants for a risk ratio of 3.28 (95% confidence interval: 0.81, 13.3). The injuries resulted in subdural hematoma in 75 athletes, subdural hematoma with diffuse brain edema in 10 athletes, diffuse brain edema in 5 athletes, and arteriovenous malformation or aneurysm in 4 athletes. Fifty-nine percent of the contacts reported that the athlete had a history of a previous head injury, of which 71% occurred within the same season as the catastrophic event. Thirty-nine percent of the athletes (21 of 54) were playing with residual neurologic symptoms from the prior head injury. There were 8 (9%) deaths as a result of the injury, 46 (51%) permanent neurologic injuries, and 36 (40%) serious injuries with full recovery. Most players sustained a major impact to the head either from tackling or being tackled.
Conclusion: The incidence of catastrophic head injuries in football has remained low since the advent of the modern day football helmet in the early 1970s. The incidence of catastrophic head injuries in football is dramatically higher at the high school level than at the college level. Although the reason for this discrepancy is unclear, an unacceptably high percentage of high school players were playing with residual symptoms from a prior head injury. Coaches, athletes, athletic trainers, and medical personnel need to adhere to the guideline that an athlete with any neurologic symptoms from a head injury should be strongly discouraged from returning to play.