Skip to main content

Protecting the Health of Football Players On and Off the Field

For high school student athletes, injuries of any kind during football practice or games occur at a higher rate than any other sport, according to a recent study of reports submitted by high school athletic trainers over a five-year period.  

While many of these injuries aren’t serious, parents have reason to be concerned about the safety of their teens who play football. In 2021, four high school students died of traumatic brain injuries that occurred playing football. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), football has the highest number of concussions and other traumatic brain injuries among youth than any other sport. 

Travis Nolan, a clinical athletic trainer at University of Utah Health, says that the most common injuries he sees are lower extremity sprains, primarily ankle sprains or sprains to one of the ligaments surrounding the knee. “The majority of sprains that are occurring during football are lower grade sprains, meaning most athletes can return to football without any long-term complications,” he says.

More serious sprains such as a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) could require surgery and rehab, depending on the severity.

Protective Gear Is One Key to Safety

Fortunately, protective equipment has advanced technologically in recent years. Sophisticated knee pads and girdles help prevent some of the sprains. Shoulder pads absorb shock to the shoulders and sternum. State-of-the-art helmets can provide a good deal of protection against head injuries. But they don’t necessarily prevent concussions or traumatic brain injuries. Problems arise when players remove padding or don’t wear the girdles or knee pads because they believe they have better range of motion without the protective gear, says Nolan.

Equipment must be certified on a regular basis according to manufacturer’s standards. Football helmets, for example, must be recertified and reconditioned annually. The Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) certifies equipment that meets the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE). Certified equipment will be tagged as such. 

Concussions and Head Injuries Require Full Recovery

If an athlete does receive a concussion or head injury, it is important they fully recover before returning to play.   

“We do know from research that athletes who have sustained one concussion are more susceptible to sustaining future concussions as well,” Nolan says. “Allowing enough time to recover from the initial concussion is going to be one of the biggest factors for reducing the chance of a future concussion as well.”

It’s important for the athlete to go through the proper steps of returning to play to prevent future concussions, such as:

  • Following the recovery timeline
  • Paying attention to your symptoms
  • Following up with a medical provider

But it is also important that athletes learn proper tackling techniques, too.

“When we have poor tackling technique, if we're leading with our head down and tackling in that type of form, we're putting ourselves at a greater risk of sustaining a concussion, as well as sustaining a severe or serious cervical spine injury,” Nolan says.  

Keeping Your Student Athlete Safe On and Off the Field

To help ensure their student athlete’s safety, parents can:

  • Make sure your child’s school or sport program properly certifies equipment on a regular basis. 
  • Verify coaches and trainers receive adequate training for injury prevention and care.
  • Check your child’s protective equipment regularly to ensure that parts of the equipment haven’t been removed or altered.
  • Keep an eye on any injuries your child receives for signs of worsening, indicated by symptoms such as increased swelling and pain, inability to bear weight, or lack of a range of motion. 
  • Make sure they participate fully in any physical therapy and don’t return to the field unless fully recovered from an injury.
  • Double check that your child wears proper protective gear when playing sports other than football.
  • Ensure your child is well hydrated and eats as nutritiously as possible, including high amounts of protein to help build muscle.