Concussions in Sports, the Danger Everyone is Trying to Ignore.

Football season is upon us once again and there are already stories during the sports segments on the news about players suffering injuries. Despite wearing the best protective gear sports science can provide Football is just such a highly physical, even violent sport that it is rare for a player to go an entire season without missing some action because of an injury.

(Note: When I refer to Football in this post I am speaking about American Football, the one where the ball is hardly ever touched by a foot. The game the rest of the world calls Football I will refer to as Futball.)

Now Football certainly isn’t alone in posing health risks to its athletes. Hockey, Rugby even Baseball and Futball all have their share of injuries. However it is Football that has become notorious for one kind of injury, concussions, repeated head injuries whose long-term health effects are severely impacting the lives of former players. We’re not talking about feeling woozy after a hard hit or ‘seeing stars’; this is major damage to the brain caused by multiple head injuries.

The condition has been given the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and the symptoms of this disease generally don’t begin to appear until 8-10 years after the repeated injuries that trigger the condition. The first signs of CET are actually similar to the initial effects of a concussion, dizziness, disorientation and headaches. As the disease progresses new symptoms begin to develop that can include memory loss, poor judgment and erratic, sometimes violent behavior. In its final stages CTE can cause dementia, speech difficulty, tremors and thoughts of suicide.

One of the biggest problems in treating CTE is that at present a diagnosis of the disease cannot be confirmed without a physical examination of the brain, something that cannot take place until after the patient is dead! Techniques are being developed using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) but more research needs to be conducted before these techniques can be considered reliable diagnostic tools. The photo below shows a healthy brain and the brain of someone who died of CTE.

Normal Brain and Brain with CTE comparison (Credit: Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy)

A recent study of deceased NFL players whose relatives allowed autopsies to be performed revealed that 110 out of 111 of the subjects had CTE. Now the researchers who conducted the study caution that the deceased players had all shown symptoms of CTE while still alive so the high percentage of confirmed cases made sense. However it is still a horrific glimpse into the extent of the disease.

However the biggest difficulty in dealing with CTE is simply money. Pro-Football and the other sports with high rates of player concussions are big business and nobody wants to see the hard hits in Football eliminated, not the owners, not the fans and not even the players themselves.

Think about it, if you asked a group of 20-year-old boys if they’d be willing to risk their health in order to play a game they love for millions of dollars a year, oh, and you get to be famous and admired as well. How many do you think would say; nah, I’d rather be an accountant! That is a part of the paradox here, CTE is a voluntary disease, you choose to risk getting it just like drug addition or lung cancer from smoking.

The NFL has agreed to establish a fund of $765 million dollars to help with the medical costs of retired players with CTE. However this agreement came only after several years of legal fights in court. Nevertheless, simply paying the medical bills of people who get sick by working for you is not a solution.

Technology is not going to make CTE go away either, the protective gear worn by Football players is already the best in any pro sport but it obviously isn’t nearly enough. I don’t know what the final solution will be but this present situation cannot continue.

And before I go I want to state once again that this disease is not confined to pro-Football, many cases of people who only played college or even high school Football have been diagnosed. Nor is it confined to Football, cases have been found in every contact sport. If you like to read more about CTE click on the link below to be taken to the ‘Concussion Foundation’s’ webpage.