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Altitude may affect whether an NFL head shot becomes a concussion

While the game is the same between the sidelines no matter where they play, the way that professional football players suffer brain injuries may depend, to some extent, on geography. That is the conclusion of a new study that considered whether altitude plays a role in the concussion rate of NFL players.

According to the study, games that are played at lower altitudes put players at higher risk of concussion, compared with games played in stadiums further from sea level. If true, this conclusion can have serious consequences for the Washington Redskins, who play fairly close to sea level.

The researchers examined data related to 300 concussions reported by the NFL from the first 16 weeks of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. They compared the brain injuries to the number of appearances by individual players, and found that there were 64.3 concussions per 10,000 games played.

Breaking down the concussion data stadium by stadium, the study’s authors discovered that the closer the arenas were to sea level, the more often players suffered concussion.

When games were played at less than 644 feet above sea level, the concussion rate jumped to 70 per 10,000 player appearances. Meanwhile, games at stadiums at 644 feet above sea level or above had a rate of 49.4 concussions per 10,000 games played.

What accounts for this difference? The study believes that the thinner air at high altitudes plays a role. It says that when a football player suffers a blow to the head at 644 feet or above, the reduced amount of oxygen in the atmosphere increases blood flow into the skull.

Having more blood around the brain may protect it from concussions caused by “brain slosh.” This may be the reason that the same sort of head shot may cause a concussion at FedEx Field, but not at Sports Authority Field in Denver.

Including the Denver stadium, only nine NFL teams play at 644 feet or above. However, teams generally provide access to supplemental oxygen on the sidelines, which could impact blood flow to the head.

This study could suggest treatment options when someone in Washington suffers a head injury. Brain injuries can cause serious, long-lasting symptoms, so any new medical interventions would be welcome.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “NFL concussion rates are lower at higher altitudes, study finds,” Alan Zarembo, Feb. 5, 2014

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