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Brain Injuries and Professional Sports by Dr. Michael Omidi MD

Dr. Michael Omidi, MD covers the recent study of chronic brain trauma in professional athletes and the resulting disorders.

Even though it seems as though football and hockey players are completely encased in protective gear, it may not be enough to stave off permanent damage from repeated head trauma, according to a recent study.

A study conducted by Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, in collaboration with the Sports Legacy Institute, analyzed posthumous brain samples of 85 people who had experienced repeated brain trauma, generally from sports like football, boxing, and hockey. [1] Of the 85 samples, 80 percent had a degenerative condition known as CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which leads to confusion, depression, memory loss and dementia.  34 samples came from professional football players, and of those samples, only one did not have any evidence of CTE.

The study was not conclusive, since the samples only came from subjects that had exhibited symptoms of CTE.  While it is not often possible to study the brains of players that do not exhibit symptoms of CTE (it doesn’t occur to either the players or the families to donate their brains for scientific and medical studies), it was noted that the athletes who suffered from CTE played the highest impact positions, such as running back or lineman in football, and enforcer in hockey.

The deteriorative affects of training camps are believed to have contributed most heavily to CTE, since, during practice, players can collide with each other repeatedly for hours on end, as opposed to during an actual game where collisions occur much less frequently.  The NFL has responded to the alarming rates of concussions by barring collisions during practice, but college football has no such bans; they continue to engage in extremely high impact and dangerous training practices.

The results of the study allowed the researchers to be able to classify different stages of CTE.  Stage one patients experience chronic headaches and the inability to concentrate.  Stage two patients tend to suffer from depression, rage and short term memory loss.  Stage three patients have significant cognitive disabilities, and stage four patients typically have dementia, aggression and difficulty forming sentences.

The recent stories of current and former professional football and hockey players committing suicide or overdosing on narcotics have caused major concern regarding the cumulative effects of brain injury among NFL officials as well as football fans and the general public.  While it may never be known if Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs, who recently killed his girlfriend and then shot himself in front of his team, suffered from CTE, football players Terry Long, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters all had CTE, and all three committed suicide. While the symptoms of CTE are clearly present in its sufferers, it is not possible to diagnose the condition conclusively while the patient is alive. [2]

By Dr. Michael Omidi, MD

[1] Belson, Ken: Study Bolsters Link Between Routine Hits and Brain Disease New York Times 12/3/2012

[2] Lupkin, Sydney: CTE, a Degenerative Brain Disease, Found in 34 Pro Football Players


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