Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Head Shots from Hell

The National Hockey League is finally admitting that fighting causes concussions… and concussions result in all kinds of nasties. See my March 22nd blog, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – Huh?, for specifics. But the big story remains with the National Football League, an organization that was making so much money that it moved from being a non-profit industry trade association into a full-fledged “for-profit” league. The NFL has dominated the ratings wherever its games are telecast and is one of the most important mainstays in keeping old world “appointment” television alive.
It is in this world of enormous profits and unquestionable media power that the biggest battles surrounding the damages to players’ lives sprawl across the headlines of sports and medical periodicals alike. The picture isn’t pretty; it was only in March that NFL vice president for health and safety Jeff Miller publicly accepted that playing NFL-level football causes a lot of this head trauma with severe repercussions from increased suicides to a rather pronounced withdrawal from daily life. Even as helmet design has been enhanced and professional contact sports have escalated penalties for actions that result in slams to the head, the damage continues with little improvement.  It is statistically pervasive.
A study that will be presented at next week’s American Academy of Neurology (AAN) meeting offers one of the most conclusive pieces of evidence yet of a definitive link between brain injury and playing football.
“It shows that ‘more than 40 percent of retired National Football League players … had signs of traumatic brain injury based on sensitive MRI scans called diffusion tensor imaging,’ according to a press release from the AAN.
“This isn’t the first study of its kind. Last year Frontline reported that researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which the Mayo Clinic defines as ‘brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas’ that is ‘a diagnosis only made at autopsy,’ in 96 percent of the NFL players they examined and in 79 percent of football players at various levels of play.
“The researchers studied 165 deceased people who had played the sport in high school, college or professionally, and found evidence of CTE in 131 of them… But this newest study is ‘one of the largest studies to date in living retired NFL players’ and the ‘first to demonstrate significant objective evidence for traumatic brain injury in these former players,’ study author Dr. Francis X. Conidi of the Florida Center for Headache and Sports Neurology and Florida State University College of Medicine said in the release.
“‘The rate of traumatic brain injury was significantly higher in the players than that found in the general population,’ Conidi said in the release… Heightened awareness of the connection between football and head traumas, the ongoing controversy over the NFL’s handling of the issue and a recent movie, ‘Concussion,’ starring Will Smith, have led to speculation that tackle football as America knows it is doomed in the long run as parents become increasingly concerned about letting their children play.
“To conduct the latest study, researchers took brain scans of 40 retired NFL players while giving them concentration and memory tests. The participants had played for an average of seven years and had reported an average of 8.1 concussions. Most were less than five years retired. Said the release:
“The MRIs measured the amount of damage to the brain’s white matter, which connects different brain regions, based on the movement of water molecules in the brain tissue. Seventeen players, or 43 percent, had levels of movement 2.5 standard deviations below those of healthy people of the same age, which is considered evidence of traumatic brain injury with a less than one percent error rate. Twelve of the former athletes, or 30 percent, showed evidence on traditional MRI of injury to the brain due to disruption of the nerve axons, those parts of nerve cells that allow brain cells to transmit messages to each other. On the tests of thinking skills, about 50 percent had significant problems on executive function, 45 percent on learning or memory, 42 percent on attention and concentration, and 24 percent on spatial and perceptual function.
“‘We found that longer careers placed the athletes at a higher risk of [traumatic brain injury],’ Conidi said in the release… The study comes a few months after the NFL released its official 2015 injury report, which shows that instances of head trauma jumped by 32 percent from 2014 to 2015, rising from 206 to 271 reported concussions.” The Washington Post, April 12th.
While parts of the United States remain football crazy, parents are increasingly questioning the wisdom of letting their kids embrace full contact football even in high school. There is creeping evidence that the popularity of NFL football is just beginning to lose some traction among younger Americans. Will such ferocious physical contests slowly fade into the history books, much as Roman gladiators are a vestige of a distant past, will we find a way to prevent concussions, or will we chip slightly away at the problem but still cherish these contact sports and accept the obvious risks?
I’m Peter Dekom, and perhaps the future lies in the hands of parents deeply concerned with the risks faced by their children in the world of competitive contact sports.

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