Epidemiology of Concussion in the National Football League, 2015-2019

Sports Health. 2021 Sep-Oct;13(5):423-430. doi: 10.1177/19417381211011446. Epub 2021 Apr 19.

Abstract

Background: Concussion in American football, and specifically the National Football League (NFL) is a major area of interest and key focus for injury prevention. Complete and accurate characterization of when, how, and to whom these injuries occur can facilitate injury reduction efforts. Existing studies of concussion in the NFL use publicly available data, potentially limiting data quality and the inferences that can be made.

Hypothesis: Concussion incidence in the NFL decreased across the 2015-2019 seasons.

Study design: Descriptive epidemiology study.

Level of evidence: Level 4.

Methods: Concussion incidence, including counts, one-season risk, and rates per game and player-plays, among active NFL players from 2015 to 2019 is described by year, season, play type, and roster position.

Results: A total 1302 concussions were identified from 2015 to 2019 among 1004 players. Of these, 80% occurred in NFL games. The average annual incidence of in-season game concussions changed over the study period, from 230.7 per season (2015-2017) to 177.0 per season (2018-2019); this represented a 23% decrease in game settings (P < 0.01). Practice concussions fluctuated across the years of the study from 38 to 67 per season (average = 50.8/season). There were 70.6 concussions per 100 preseason games, which was slightly higher than the regular season rate per game of 61.7. Overall, there were 790 regular season game concussions across 4,657,243 player-plays and 114,428 player-games during the 5-year study. In regular season games, the majority of concussions were sustained on running and passing plays (n = 119/season), and the highest average rate per play occurred on kickoffs (0.69/100 plays). Defensive secondary (cornerbacks, safeties, and generic defensive backs) and offensive line incurred the most concussions, and the highest rates of concussion were among tight ends and wide receivers.

Conclusion and relevance: Concussions in the NFL are a key focus for player safety. Concussion reduction strategies were implemented before 2018, after which there was a sustained 2-year decrease in concussion incidence, providing a new benchmark from which to work toward further injury reduction.

Keywords: American football; National Football League; concussion; epidemiology.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Brain Concussion / epidemiology*
  • Football / injuries*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • United States / epidemiology