Return to play guidelines cannot solve the football-related concussion problem

J Sch Health. 2012 Apr;82(4):180-5. doi: 10.1111/j.1746-1561.2011.00684.x.


Background: High school football players are the single largest cohort of athletes playing tackle football, and account for the majority of sport-related concussions. Return to play guidelines (RTPs) have emerged as the preferred approach for addressing the problem of sport-related concussion in youth athletes.

Methods: This article reviews evidence of the risks and effects of football-related concussion and subconcussive brain trauma, as well as the effectiveness of RTPs as a preventative measure. Literature review utilized PubMed and Google Scholar, using combinations of the search terms "football,""sports,""concussion,""Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,""athlete,""youth," and "pediatric." Literature review emphasized medical journals and primary neuroscientific research on sport-related concussion and concussion recovery, particularly in youth athletes.

Results: Sport-related concussion is a significant problem among student athletes. Student athletes are more vulnerable to concussion, and at risk of neurocognitive deficits lasting a year or more, with serious effects on academic and athletic performance. RTPs do little to address the problem of sport-related concussion or the chronic damage caused by subconcussive brain trauma.

Conclusions: Emphasizing RTPs as the solution to the concussion problem in tackle football risks neglecting genuine reforms that would prevent concussions. More effective concussion prevention is needed. Eliminating tackling from school football for youth under 16 is recommended to reduce concussions. Additional modifications to football are recommended to enhance safety and reduce brain trauma at all levels of play.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Factors
  • Athletes
  • Athletic Injuries / complications
  • Athletic Injuries / etiology
  • Athletic Injuries / prevention & control*
  • Brain Concussion / complications
  • Brain Concussion / etiology*
  • Brain Concussion / prevention & control*
  • Football / injuries*
  • Football / standards
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Health Policy*
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors
  • Schools