CTE- The Long Term Consequences of Head Injuries in Sports

by John McKiggan

The results of a study done by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on the brain of legendary NFL linebacker Junior Seau revealed symptoms consistent with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowler, committed suicide on May 2, 2012. An autopsy revealed no illegal drugs or alcohol in Seau’s body.

Seau’s family offered his brain for the study. The NIH conducted a blind study of 3 brains, one of which were Seau’s, found that Seau’s brain had signs consistent with those found in people who have been exposed to repetitive head injuries.

Seau’s son, Tyler, and ex-wife, Gina, said that they had noticed personality changes prior to his death. The behaviour included mood swings, insomnia and depression.

CTE Not Caused by Concussions

There has been increased awareness of the dangers of sports related concussions. I have written about the issue many times on this blog. See for example: Sudden Impact: Liability for Sports Related Concussions an article I originally wrote for Lawyers Weekly magazine.

What is not well understood is that CTE does not require repeated concussions to occur.

The Purdue Neurotrauma Group has been studying victims of CTE and an expert from the Center has said that Seau’s CTE was probably not caused by repeated concussions.

Professor Tom Talavage, a Biomedical Engineer says that education efforts focused solely on identifying and preventing concussions may still be putting athletes at risk:

“Seau played a savage brand of football for a quarter century without a single diagnosis of concussion as a professional. Just increasing efforts to improve concussion diagnosis is a waste of time and taxpayer money,”

According to Talavage, Seau’s injuries were more likely caused by the cumulative effects of thousands of sub concussive injuries. In other words, blows to the head that were not serious enough to cause a concussion, but still significant enough to cause cognitive deficits.

Lawsuits by Former Players

The NFL currently faces a class action by thousands of former players who allege that the league withheld important information about the harmful effects of concussions.

Time magazine has speculated about whether Seau’s diagnosis will lead to more NFL players joining the litigation.

Not Just Football Players

The dangers of CTE are not limited to football players. Any sport that subjects players to repeated blows to the head (boxing, hockey, rugby even soccer) can increase the risk of CTE.

Post-Mortem Diagnosis

CTE is diagnosed by microscopic examination of brain tissue after death. Unfortunately at this point, scientists have not identified any way to diagnose the injury in living athletes.

That means that all athletes who have been exposed to repeated head trauma are at risk.

What Can be Done?

The NFL is currently facing a class action for allegedly withholding information about the dangers of repeated head trauma. Hopefully this litigation, and the increased awareness of the dangers, will prevent this type of situation from happening in the future.

Education Key

On a go forward basis, sports leagues can certainly work on educating the athletes, coaches and support staff on preventing injuries and to identify concussions. If the athletes and coaching staff are aware of the dangers they can try to minimize blows to the head and respond properly such hits.

Technology May Help

Reebok has recently announced an interesting new piece of equipment for contact sports – a head-impact indicator. The CheckLight, as it is called, is placed under the athlete’s helmet and a sensor light indicator will display signals depending on the severity of the blow to the athlete’s head. The light will flash yellow if there is a moderate impact and red if there is severe impact. Reebok says the CheckLight will help players themselves to determine whether their teammate has a concussion. Reebok claims the device will be affordable, available to amateur athletes, and it is going to be made available through the first half of 2013.

Be Careful

Let’s hope the necessary changes are made in contact sports to limit the risk of concussions and preventing CTE.

By promoting awareness and education among players, coaches, and parents and through the use of new helmets, equipment and technology we can hope fewer athletes go down the path of an incredible athlete like Junior Seau.

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