How Creatine Can Help Protect Football Players

My football coach said creatine supplementation might be a good idea since new research shows it may help protect football players from concussions. What do you know about this?

Answer: Your football coach is right. Some new, interesting research shows supplementing with creatine may help prevent sports-related head injuries, such as that which prematurely ended future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young’s career and likely precipitated the Parkinson’s disease suffered by boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Lately, concussions seem to be occurring with unprecedented regularity—particularly in professional football. Statistics kept by the NFL commissioner’s office suggest football injuries to the brain occur at a rate of one every 3.5 games. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says more than 300,000 such injuries happen to people participating in sports or recreational activities every year. Stricter rules to increase participants’ safety have been implemented in recent years to help lessen the risk. But in sports such as football, boxing and hockey—where hitting is all a part of the game—anything short of not competing can’t entirely prevent injury from occurring.

While eliminating the risk of concussion in contact sports seems out of the question, a new study suggests that creatine supplementation may actually help reduce the severity of head injuries.

The study, published in a recent issue of the Annals of Neurology, shows brain damage may be reduced by 21 percent when creatine is taken three days before injury and up to 36 percent when taken five days before injury. Moreover, the researchers also discovered that supplementing with creatine four weeks before such an injury may reduce the severity by 50 percent.

“We believe this is a highly significant finding in the field of neurotrauma,” says study author Dr. Stephen Scheff, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. “We know of nothing to date that has shown this type of benefit in preventing serious neurotrauma.”

According to the researchers, creatine may work to protect against head injury by providing the brain cells’ mitochondria—the “powerhouses” of the cells—with a reserve source of fuel to keep them energized after injury, thus preventing them from dying off.

“There are a number of athletes taking creatine, and they’re taking it primarily to help build lean muscle and help them recover from short bursts of activity,” says Dr. Scheff. “Now we find out they’re also inadvertently protecting themselves, as well.”

Dr. Scheff says researchers have often wondered why it is that NFL quarterbacks who’ve suffered so many concussions—such as former Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman—have been able to play again shortly after sustaining an injury that would ordinarily keep someone sidelined for months. “We think the reason may be that 75 percent of professional football players take creatine,” says Dr. Scheff.

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