It’s become a question of huge importance in recent years, especially among fans of professional sports: do hits to the head and concussions in football cause long term disabilities such as CTE? The NFL has begun implementing increased safety measures for players with concussion like symptoms in the wake of the suicides of former players such as Mike Webster, Junior Seau, and others. They have also begun settling lawsuits filed by the families of former players affected by head injuries. But what is CTE and what evidence has been found linking concussions to long term brain damage?
According to Boston University, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a disease of the brain that causes tissue to die and leads to symptoms similar to that of an Alzheimer’s patient (forgetfulness, anger, lack of judgement, etc.). It can be caused by repeated blows to the head and symptoms can remain dormant for years after the end of a player’s career. In an article from CNN, it appears there are people working on drugs to treat CTE and, although we’re likely years away from any significant breakthrough, there is at least some hope for former players who are suffering these symptoms.
A study from the Medical College of Wisconsin has found that concussions can change the structure of the human brain, even after symptoms have long cleared up. 35 high school and college football players were studied, with half having had head injuries recently and half serving as a control group. Several different kinds of scans of their brains were done and at multiple times to decrease the possibility of chance results. What they found was that the water in white matter in the brain was moving less in the brains of athletes who had suffered concussions, even half a year after the injuries. However, so far, scientists have not been able to find a concrete link between this damage to the structure of the brain. The outlook from these findings is that it may push coaches and other authority figures to keep players out longer when sidelined with concussions, as the damage is still being done long after the symptoms disappear.
In short, concussions have come to the forefront of public consciousness in recent years for good reason. While it’s incredibly tragic that so many former players have been affected by concussions and long term brain diseases such as CTE, the outlook is good for the future. New rules have been put in place at all levels of football to keep players as safe as possible. And while a game based around hitting each other may never been 100% safe, they may one day be at least somewhat less dangerous.