Teen football player in helmet

Friday Night Lights Out

New research from Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs has revealed that a progressive, degenerative brain disease believed to be the result of head trauma is more common in football players than was previously thought.

According to the researchers, 87 of 91 deceased National Football League (NFL) players tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that is thought to be the result of multiple concussions that causes conditions ranging from depression to dementia.

While 96 percent of the football players’ brains did test positive for CTE, the researchers are quick to point out that testing was done after death on patients who had expressed concern about CTE while they were alive.

The late Junior Seau, a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, committed suicide in 2012 — an action his family attributed to his now-confirmed CTE. A postmortem analysis of the brain of Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend and himself in a 2012 murder/suicide, revealed the Kansas City Chief’s linebacker had CTE.

Not Just for the Pros

While you might think professional athletes who experience repeated, high-impact hits to the head are the only football players at risk for CTE, that isn’t the case. When testing brain tissue from players at all skill levels — including those who played either at professional, college or high-school levels — the researchers found signs of CTE in 79 percent of the players, and 40 percent of those were linemen who traditionally don’t experience jarring hits that lead to concussions.

According to Boston University researchers, the youngest recorded case of confirmed CTE was in an 18-year-old multisport athlete who experienced repeated concussions while playing football.

Concussion Repercussions

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), concussions occur when a hit to the body or head allows the brain to move quickly within the skull, leading to damage of the brain cells. When this happens, a person experiencing a concussion might be confused or not feel right, and can suffer a variety of symptoms including headache, nausea and balance issues. While helmets definitely offer some protection against head injury, they don’t prevent all concussions.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Brain and Spine Injury Program reports about 300,000 sports-related concussions occur each year, and contact sports athletes have about a 19 percent chance of receiving a concussion each year. Once a concussion is suffered, the chances of suffering a subsequent concussion increase, and repeat concussions can lead to permanent damage—possibly even CTE.

Those playing contact sports should always wear a helmet, and when any head injury is experienced, it’s important the athlete leave the field immediately to be examined by the trainer. The CDC reports that while concussion symptoms generally appear immediately after the injury, it may also take hours or days for symptoms to become obvious. Any head injury where consciousness is lost or memory is impacted requires medical attention.

For more information on signs and symptoms of concussions, visit TexasHealth.org/BenHogan.

Physicians on the medical staff practice independently and are not employees or agents of the hospital or Texas Health Resources.

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