By Carolyn Crist

(Reuters Health) – Limiting time spent on specific drills during practice could help reduce head impacts among U.S. college football players, researchers say.

Shortening the highest-risk drills by a few minutes per practice could cut the equivalent of nearly a year’s worth of head impacts over the course of a college career, the researchers write in Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

“More research has been done in recent years around routine head impacts that don’t cause concussions but lead to adverse effects later in life,” said study leader Breton Asken of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

In 2017, for instance, the National Collegiate Athletic Association restricted practice times and eliminated two-a-day practices in hopes of reducing routine head impacts.

“Practices give us more opportunity to modify what’s being performed regularly, as opposed to less predictable games,” Asken said by phone. “If we can reduce the risks, football can remain an outlet for participation across different ages.”

At the University of Florida, Breton and colleagues studied drill-specific head impacts among 47 players over two years.

Players wore a head impact telemetry system that uses sensors to measure “friendly fire” impacts among teammates. Researchers were able to look at particular field positions, different types of drills and head impacts, and hits sustained per person per minute.

During 169 practice sessions, they recorded more than 32,000 impacts and found significant differences in hits sustained per person per minute based on player position for 14 drills. For instance, some linemen – both offensive and defensive – faced nearly triple the risk for head impact compared with non-linemen. For all drills except one known as “special teams,” hits per person per minute where higher for linemen.

Impacts were most severe during spring practice, followed by fall training camp and in-season sessions. Practices with full pads tended to have more head impacts than when athletes dressed in lighter unpadded equipment or in helmets only.

More than 80 percent of avoidable head impacts were attributable to just three drills – known as “team run,” “move the field” and “team” – all 11-versus-11 full team drills.

The authors recommend shortening these three high-risk drills. Clipping them by a few minutes each could result in 1,000 fewer head impacts for linemen and 300 fewer impacts for non-linemen over a college career, the researchers estimate.

“People paint broad strokes about the dangers of football and propose modifications that are similarly broad and nonspecific,” Asken said. “But if we target specific activities, we may be able to increase player safety without drastically altering the game or practice itself.”

Researchers will need to look at the practical aspect of implementing these changes, the authors note.

“The next steps are to educate coaches about these findings so they can plan practices to decrease head impacts while still preparing their teams,” said coauthor Dr. Jay Clugston, a team doctor for the University of Florida Athletic Association.

“We’d also suggest they not only lessen time in high-risk drills but space them out to decrease the density of impacts, which is felt to influence concussion risk,” Clugston said by email.

Changing practice sessions requires buy-in from everyone, including administrators, coaches, trainers, sports medicine professionals and players themselves, said Jessica Wallace, athletic training program director at Youngstown State University in Ohio, in a phone interview.

“Just like football is a team sport, creating a safer environment is a team sport as well,” said Wallace, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “We need to team up with coaches and players and work together to be successful.”

SOURCE: Annals of Biomedical Engineering, online July 9, 2018.