As NFL Playoffs Approach, The Issue Of Long-Term Damage From Concussions Dominates Headlines

As the 2015 NFL season comes to a close and the playoffs approach, the American love of football is being overshadowed by the long-term consequences of concussions. The fact is that despite helmets, concussions are common for ex-football players who suffer the debilitating consequences of years of helmet bashing and violent falls to the ground. As Jeffrey English, M.D. explains to Piedmont Healthcare, it is not so much an individual concussion that does the long-term damage, but re-injuring the brain when it is not fully healed that leads to long-term consequences, such as dementia.

“People who have had a concussion, which is a mild traumatic brain injury, need to make sure their brain is completely healed before it is potentially reinjured, such as during a sporting event. For patients with a more complicated recovery – with persistent post-concussive symptoms – we have to be more cautious.”

In fact, there is a new film that explores this issue with interviews and facts from decades of research and interviews with ex-players.

Boxing, ice hockey, football, baseball, soccer, gymnastics, horseback riding, and even cycling have all been implicated in causing long-term damage to the brain. Of particular concern are young athletes of high school age who are not managed properly by coaches to assure they are fully healed before returning to the game. Frontline reports that 76 of 79 former NFL players were found to have brain damage. The damage found is called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

“Researchers there have now examined the brain tissue of 128 football players who, before their deaths, played the game professionally, semi-professionally, in college or in high school. Of that sample, 101 players, or just under 80 percent, tested positive for CTE.”

According to the Mayo clinic, symptoms of CTE include: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Frontotemporal dementia, and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

These symptoms of CTE manifest eight to 10 years after the concussive injuries that were re-injured and not allowed to heal properly. One difficulty in the diagnosis is that CTE can only be definitively identified after death and this means that numbers of people who are suffering from the disease could be greatly under exaggerated.

NFL players with CTE

Here are some of the famous NFL players diagnosed with CTE.

Mike Webster

Mike Webster appeared nine times in the NFL Pro Bowl. He won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997. Unfortunately, Webster was diagnosed with amnesia, depression, and dementia caused by CTE. The diagnosis was not made until after his death in 2002 and signaled the first official CTE case.

Shane Dronett

Long-term consequences are often the result of long-term careers, as it is the repetitve injuries that give a greater probability of CTE. In 2006, Dronett was suffering “confusion, paranoia, and bouts of rage.” He went on to confront his wife with a gun and after she fled for her safety, he fatally shot himself. He was only 38-years-old when this happened.

Terry Long

Terry Long, another Steelers player, had a career that spanned seven years from 1984-1991. In 1991, the year of his retirement, Long tried to kill himself after testing positive for steroids. In 2005, Long committed suicide by drinking anti-freeze.

Junior Seau

The most famous case, however, was the case of Junior Seau, who played in the Pro Bowl 12 times and was the 1994 player of the year and even made it into the 1990s All-Decade team. However, in 2012, Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Seau’s wife reported that he had secretly been suffering brain injury symptoms throughout his post NFL career, including recurrent insomnia.

There are many other cases of athletes in the NFL, and the other sports mentioned, who have suffered similar fates, which raises the question of whether professional sports, as played currently, are worth the human cost, particularly in the inevitable high risk of contracting CTE.

[Image by Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]