Fresh Air, a PBS radio program hosted by Terry Gross, reminded me how passionate I am about mild traumatic brain injury and headache disorders. David Davies guest hosted a show last week interviewing Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, called Brain Injuries Haunt Football Players Years Later. Thankfully a friend was listening to the program, and they then shared the link with me.
Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player, was on his way to become a top WWE professional wrestler, earning numerous titles and championships, and his future looked to be very lucrative. But that ended in 2003, when he realized he'd suffered a minimum of six concussions and was experiencing some very disturbing symptoms. From that point on, he dedicated himself to learning all he could about concussions and brain injuries in sports and then others who are at risk for this type of injury. This includes football, soccer, pro wrestlers, hockey players and boxers in addition to our military veterans. He was stunned to discover that these types of injuries are a much bigger problem than anyone knew or wanted to talk about. Especially in young athletes.
When a young athlete gets a "ding" to the head, or "sees stars" after a hit or fall, many times it will go ignored because the player just wants to keep playing, or thinks they need to "tough it out." The coach can't possible see every hit, and if the player doesn't tell his/her coach (or parent for that matter) when they are injured, no one ever knows. What's worse, if the player doesn't get the proper recovery time, and continues to get hit over and over, this puts them at an increased risk for long term brain problems later in life. Like the six former pro football players whose brains were found to have a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.
In 2007, Chris and Dr. Cantu co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI,) looking to find an answer for the extensive concussion problem in sports. In 2009 they then added various plans for military veterans to be included in their agenda. SLI's mission is simple: "advance the study, treatment and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups." Educating young athletes, coaches and parents on the dangers of concussion and prevention, along with researching CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy are a few vocals points SLI works on.
CTE is a brain disorder that accumulates the abnormal protein tau, and is only confirmed at autopsy. CTE can present with symptoms like depression, aggression, changes in personality and irritably just to name a few. So if an athlete, military veteran or any one else, suffers repeated brain injuries, or concussions, especially from an early age, they may unknowingly be putting themselves at risk for CTE.
Current thinking on recovery time in sports related concussions is that the athlete not return to his/her sport until after they have been cleared by a medical professional. But this puts the medical professional under the gun, for a few reasons. It isn't always easy to distinguish when a player is ready to go back into the game, especially when image testing is normal, and he keeps telling the coach, trainer and doctor, that he is "good to go" but is really quite mentally impaired. If a player returns to the game too early, it can put him/her at risk for Second Impact Syndrome (SIS) in which almost 50% percent of athletes die or will suffer from some life-altering impairments.
Educating our children, coaches, athletes, school officials, and even the pros on the dangers of mild traumatic brain injury in sports and how to avoid them is the best thing we can do for young athletes today. Learning how to play "the game" without losing the biggest game (life) in the end, will be a challenge for us all.