Jan 29, 2015
Football’s Concussion Crisis

By Kyle Garratt

Leading medical experts announced several discoveries this week linking concussions and degenerative brain disease. Included in this data is the case of a now-deceased 18-year-old whose football-related head trauma may have contributed to a rare brain disease.

In one of the more shocking discoveries involving concussions in football, medical experts at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) announced that they found early evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)–a degenerative brain disease–in a recently deceased 18-year-old boy. The boy’s identity and cause of death were not revealed, but he reportedly suffered several concussions while playing high school football and other contact sports.

CTE is a progressive and incurable condition brought on by repeated head trauma that can cause erratic behavior, memory impairment, emotional instability, depression and poor impulse control, and will eventually lead to dementia. The disease is identified through a postmortem exam and had never been documented in a football player younger than 36.

“The findings are very shocking because we never thought anybody that young could already be started down the path to this disease,” Dr. Robert Cantu, an associate professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine and a co-director of CSTE, told The Boston Globe. “It should send a powerful message to people at every level of football that they need to care about this issue and treat concussions with respect.”

The CSTE also announced findings thatformer NFL offensive lineman Tom McHale suffered from CTE at the time of his death in 2008 at the age of 45. McHale played for several teams from 1987 to 1995, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his death was declared an accidental drug overdose after years of battling addiction. McHale was the sixth deceased NFL veteran between the ages of 36 and 50 examined by the CSTE, with all six having suffered from CTE.

“This is a medically significant finding,” Dr. Daniel P. Perl, Director of Neuropathology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York told The New York Times. “I think with a sixth case identified, out of six, for a condition that is incredibly rare in the general population, there is more than enough evidence that football is clearly strongly related to the presence of this pathology.”

The other former NFL players displaying signs of CTE were former Houston Oilers linebacker John Grimsley, former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, and former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk. Dr. Ann C. McKee, co-director of CSTE said that the cases of McHale and Grimsley were confirmed by Dr. E. Tessa Hedley-Whyte, the director of neuropathology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

According to McHale’s widow, Lisa, he suffered from depression and abused painkillers and cocaine toward the end of his life, but she could not recall him suffering concussions during his playing days at Cornell University or the NFL. Doctors agree that McHale’s drug abuse could not have contributed to CTE.

Of the five other former NFL players, two committed suicide, one was killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, one died while trying to evade police in a high-speed chase, and one had a fatal heart attack. The tragedy surrounding post-NFL concussions has spurred several veteran players to take action. Former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson is among seven former NFL players who have agreed to donate their brains to the BUSM after their death. Johnson suffers from postconcussion syndrome, and told the New York Daily News that while he reported six concussions during his career, he suffered easily close to 100 unreported concussions.

Among the project’s donors are four members of the 88 Plan, an organization created by the NFL that donates up to $88,000 a year to care for former players suffering from dementia. The program was named after Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, who wore the number 88 and who now suffers from the illness. The 88 Plan recently received a $250,000 grant from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, which aims in part to improve helmet safety.

T&C Links:

To learn more about the science of concussions, click the T&C feature: “Making Headway.”

For more information on developing a concussion protocol, click on the T&C feature: “From Hands to Head.”

Kyle Garratt is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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