Feb 9, 2022 - Sports

The NFL's fight against concussions

Illustration of a helmet shattering

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Playing football will always come with inherent risk, but the NFL's efforts to make the sport safer are bearing fruit — and further advancements could be on the way.

Driving the news: There were 187 total concussions this season, continuing a promising downward trend. For reference, the average 2015–2017 was 266 per year.

Yes, but: Despite changes designed to make special teams safer, the injury rate on punts and kickoffs remains high.

  • One in six concussions and 30% of ACL tears occurred on special teams this season.

The big picture: Rule changes have been effective in improving player safety, but they can only do so much. That's where science and technology come in.

  • Video analysis was used last season to track every instance of head impact, and the resulting data will be the crux of "our next big frontier when it comes to the neurological health of our players," said NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills.
  • Meanwhile in Canada, scientists have developed a blood test that can diagnose a concussion in 20 minutes. It could be available as early as 2023, and other similar tests aren't far behind.
  • "What we're really trying to do is make sure concussions aren't missed," said one of the scientists. "Because when you have cumulative concussions, that's when the symptoms become more debilitating ... and in some rare cases, they can be life-ending."

What to watch: Reliable concussion tests would be a game-changer, as would the ability to diagnose CTE in living people. We're not there yet, but recent biomarker research has scientists closer than ever.

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