The objective of this study was to characterize changes in head impact exposure (HIE) across multiple football seasons and to determine whether changes in HIE correlate with changes in imaging metrics in youth football players.
On-field head impact data and pre- and postseason imaging data, including those produced by diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), were collected from youth football athletes with at least two consecutive seasons of data. ANCOVA was used to evaluate HIE variations (number of impacts, peak linear and rotational accelerations, and risk-weighted cumulative exposure) by season number. DTI scalar metrics, including fractional anisotropy, mean diffusivity, and linear, planar, and spherical anisotropy coefficients, were evaluated. A control group was used to determine the number of abnormal white matter voxels, which were defined as 2 standard deviations above or below the control group mean. The difference in the number of abnormal voxels between consecutive seasons was computed for each scalar metric and athlete. Linear regression analyses were performed to evaluate relationships between changes in HIE metrics and changes in DTI scalar metrics.
There were 47 athletes with multiple consecutive seasons of HIE, and corresponding imaging data were available in a subsample (n = 19) of these. Increases and decreases in HIE metrics were observed among individual athletes from one season to the next, and no significant differences (all p > 0.05) in HIE metrics were observed by season number. Changes in the number of practice impacts, 50th percentile impacts per practice session, and 50th percentile impacts per session were significantly positively correlated with changes in abnormal voxels for all DTI metrics.
These results demonstrate a significant positive association between changes in HIE metrics and changes in the numbers of abnormal voxels between consecutive seasons of youth football. Reducing the number and frequency of head impacts, especially during practice sessions, may decrease the number of abnormal imaging findings from one season to the next in youth football.