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Actors are getting brain injuries just like football players, study says

Two thirds of theater workers, including actors and crew, experienced a head impact while working in the performing arts, according to a new study. Many had more than one impact and concussion-related symptoms. Many were not reported.
Two thirds of theater workers, including actors and crew, experienced a head impact while working in the performing arts, according to a new study. Many had more than one impact and concussion-related symptoms. Many were not reported. AP

As a growing body of evidence points to a serious risk of brain injury in football, players, parents and even former stars are starting to question their participation in the sport.

But it’s not just football players who risk serious injury while doing what they love; it’s actors and theater workers, too.

A new study from Ohio University, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that more than two-thirds of 258 theater workers surveyed said they had at least one theater-related head impact during their careers so far.

Of those, 77 percent said they had more than three head impacts, and about 40 percent said they had more than five injuries. Most of those hits also came with concussion-related symptoms such as dizziness, sensitivity to light or confusion, according to the study. Most continued participating in the shows, and nearly half of the injured workers or actors never reported being hurt.

“In this particular industry, they don’t recognize how serious the injury is and they’re not accustomed to having healthcare close by like a sports team would,” Jeff Russell, the lead author of the study, wrote in a news release. “Some will keep going because if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Some don’t want to be seen as not tough enough, particularly in the stunt industry.”

One theater student at the university told the researchers she was not surprised by the results, and had slipped and hit her head on the ground and gotten a concussion, which put her out of commission for a few weeks. But she said that if it had happened during a show, she would have just continued working.

“You just don’t want someone to tell you that you can’t do it,” she told the researchers.

It’s the same sentiment that leads athletes to choke back their pain and keep playing. A 2015 study found that as many as 72 percent of high school student athletes kept playing while having concussion-related symptoms, even when they were trained to recognize them.

Football is a different world from theater, of course. But Russell says there are dangers in both.

“You don’t think of performing artists the same way you do sports athletes. Football is about collision. You don’t think about that in performing arts. They’re doing their work where they’re building things, moving equipment and often working backstage where it’s dark,” he wrote. “There are a variety of ‘booby traps’ in the arts world where an injury is likely to occur.”

The researchers found that age didn’t matter, nor years of experience in theater. The chances of getting a head injury were the same.

Russell and the researchers pointed to a need for theater organizations to recognize the danger in the performing arts and to begin trying to keep theater workers, and especially the youngest ones still in school, as safe as possible.

“Teenagers are still at risk because of the kinds of things they do but I would hope for increasing education and healthcare access for everyone in the professional and university ranks so the culture filters down into the high school ranks,” Russell wrote.

The researchers recommended making sure proper head protection was worn, especially for production students, and ensuring that medical staff only released performers and workers back to the stage when it was medically sound.

“It has to be made OK that if you have a head injury it’ll be taken care of properly. That has to be OK with everybody,” Russell wrote. “Severe consequences can occur when concussions are not managed correctly. The brain is more important than a production or a performance.”

Learn exactly what a concussion is and why it is so important to allow your brain to fully recover. Traumatic brain injuries contribute to "a substantial number of deaths and cases of permanent disability" each year, according to the CDC. In 2010,

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