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Greg Webb
Greg Webb
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Chronic Brain Trauma: Serious Risk for Athletes

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Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) affects people – especially young people and adults – who have experienced chronic brain trauma. In other words, the victims of CTE have been hit in the head repeatedly and may have suffered multiple concussions. You can see CTE in people who have been injured in car wrecks and in kids and adults who play football, rugby, soccer and other contact sports where heads are often hit—and hit hard.

CTE, the only preventable form of dementia, was originally called “dementia pugilistica” for the boxers who suffered with this chronic degenerative brain disease that is similar to Alzheimer’s. The expression, “punch drunk” has an association to symptoms of the disease. Despite the probable existence of the disease since first there were physical battles and hand-to-hand combat, it was first documented in medical literature in 1996.

Any neurologist will tell you, the brain is an amazing and wondrous organ. When a person is hit in the head, the brain, a spongy organ can be squashed or moved to one side within the skull. As the brain recovers from a hard hit, it may swell (and hopefully, the swelling will recede), and may assume its former position within the skull—if the person who has suffered a hit in the head is fortunate. But repeated hard hits to the head can do damage—depending upon where and how hard the head is hit, how many times the head has been hit and how extensive the brain injury, bruising, swelling and other brain cell damage that has occurred.

Early symptoms of CTE may include: deterioration in attention, concentration and memory, disorientation, confusion, dizziness, headaches, lack of insight, poor judgment, overt dementia, slowed muscular movements, staggered gait, impeded speech, tremors, vertigo, and deafness. CTE progresses in recognizable stages, the first being affective disturbances and psychotic symptoms; the second stage may include erratic behavior and memory loss, the third stage may include symptoms similar to those experienced by individuals with Parkinson’s Disease (speech disorder, difficulty swallowing, staggered gait, etc.). For more information on brain injuries, there are many websites that provide helpful information, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a great site for general information: www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/

The only good news about CTE is that in some cases, it’s preventable. In sports, helmets help, but they don’t prevent all head injuries. We can change how hard we allow our young kids to be hit in school sports; the National Football League is beginning to take repeated concussions and brain injuries very seriously, and hopefully we might see changes made by the league that benefit current and past players. We have only to look to lives prematurely shortened by CTE, such as NFL Lineman Shane Dronette’s or Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry’s, to see the value in head protection over time. With all of the scientific and technological developments we have made in the recent past, we should be able to devise better ways to prevent CTE in our young athletes.