Why I Study...Sports-Related Brain Injuries

Assistant Professor of Public Health Kathleen Bachynski shares how a soccer injury she sustained in high school inspired an interest in a lesser-known realm of her field.

By: Kathleen Bachynski, as told to Meghan Kita  Monday, November 16, 2020 08:38 AM

News Image
Assistant Professor of Public Health Kathleen Bachynski teaches in October 2019. Photo by Littlewing Photography

When I was a junior in high school, I tore my ACL, MCL and meniscus playing soccer. I had to have surgery and physical therapy. By the time I went on to my master’s, I knew so many other people who’d been affected by sports injuries that I wanted to study them from a public health point of view.

Injury is relatively new to public health. There's a long history of treating injuries as random, and if things are random, you can't prevent them. In the ’50s and ’60s, the building of highways and an increase in car crashes got people thinking, “Maybe we could apply the same methods we use to figure out patterns and strategies for prevention of infectious disease to car crash injuries.” Then, that started getting applied to other kinds of injuries. 

I was most interested in bone and joint injuries, but I couldn’t find anyone to advise a thesis in that field. At the time, the University of Michigan, where I was studying, had a program that had just begun looking at sport and the brain and was eager to take on students. One of the neurologists advised me on my master’s thesis on migraine headaches in athletes compared to non-athletes, and that got me more interested in brain injuries. 

That’s what I focused on when I went back to get my Ph.D. in the history and ethics of public health. I'm really excited about the historical question of when do we go from thinking something is harmless to thinking it's risky. For example, I wrote a paper on ice hockey. I have a great uncle who had a brief career as an NHL goalie back in the ’40s, before goalies wore face masks or helmets. He got hit and it gave him double vision. I looked at the history of when they added helmets and masks. There was an idea that a tough guy would play bare-faced, but then, an NHL player died in the late 1960s of a massive brain injury when he hit his head on the ice.

My mother’s Canadian and I grew up very close to the border, but in most of the U.S., football is really where it’s at, so I shifted focus for my dissertation to youth football. More than 95 percent of football players in the U.S. are 18 or under. There are about 1 million high school and 2 million elementary and middle school kids who play. When you’re a kid, your head is bigger relative to the rest of your body, your neck muscles are weaker and your brain is still developing. There is worry that the physics of a hit could result in a higher risk for kids. When we’re thinking about long-term harms, it’s more about the accumulation of lots of hits over a lifetime. Starting to play as a child means many extra years of possible exposure to those collisions.