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The downside of football: brain damage

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
brain damage, football, concussion, NFL, lawsuit, Parkinson's disease

We are just coming off a big holiday football weekend with more to come next weekend: the bowl games. Some football players win and some lose; however, win, lose, or draw, some players suffer irreparable brain damage from the sport. For example, sports-related concussions have been estimated to be between 1.6 million to 3.8 million players each year in the United States. Many of these athletes are high school, college, or professional football players. Many players chalk it up to an acceptable risk of an activity that can provide one with millions of dollars of revenue. Others express concern, while other players who have suffered brain damage as a result of the sport have filed lawsuits against the National Football League (NFL).

Athletes who play football at any level are risking their brains to permanent damage that may render them vegetables for their rest of their lives with even after suffering just a single concussion. In many cases, a period of disorientation follows a concussion with return in a matter of hours or days to a normal state; however, permanent brain damage may set in at a later date.

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According to a recent study by UCLA researchers, a link exists between traumatic brain injury and Parkinson’s disease (PD), a neurodegenerative disorder that affects roughly 1-2% of the population over the age of 65. On August 19, the UCLA researchers published their findings online in the journal Neuroscience. They found that a moderate traumatic brain injury in rats caused a 15% loss in the brain cells known as nigrostriatal dopaminergic neurons shortly after the trauma, and that this loss continued to progress to a 30% loss 26 weeks after the initial injury. The loss of these neurons can result in the neurologic symptoms observed in PD, including akinesia (problems with movement), postural tremor, and rigidity. Furthermore, when combined with a second known risk factor for Parkinson's, the pesticide paraquat, the loss of dopaminergic neurons doubled to 30% much faster.

Jamal Lewis, Dorsey Levens, and two other former NFL players have sued the league over brain injuries that they say left them struggling with medical problems years after they hung up their helmets and jerseys for the last time. Last week, Lewis and Levens, as well as Fulton Kuykendall and Ryan Stewart, filed the lawsuit against the NFL and FNL Properties LLC in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. The players alleged that the NFL knew as early as the 1920s of the potential for concussions to harm its players; however, the league only went public last year.” In addition, a group of top former NFL players argue in the lawsuit that “the NFL has done everything in its power to hide the issue and mislead players concerning the risks associated with concussions." The lawsuit notes: ''While athletes in other professional sports who had suffered concussions were being effectively `shut down' for long periods of time or full seasons, NFL protocol was to return players who had suffered concussions to the very game in which the injury occurred,'' the lawsuit states. In addition, a court document noted that the NFL concealed the dangers from coaches, trainers, players and the public until June 2010, when it publicly acknowledged the health threats and warned players and teams.” According to the UCLA study, following a concussion, the brain is more susceptible to further injury with another insult.

Most fans fully aware that there will always be concussions in the game of football; however, most parents of players, who participate in Pop Warner leagues, in high school, in college, and even in the NFL “don’t understand the effects of concussions are cumulative, and their sons will never heal one hundred percent,” states a new bestseller “The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic.” The book explains that during any competitive game of football “there is brain seizures after impact creating lasting neurodegerative disease.” The book author’s Linda Carroll and David Rosner wrote: “It’s becoming increasing clear that concussions, like severe head traumas, can rob players of their memory, their mental abilities and very sense of self.”

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew was asked whether he would try to play through a concussion or pull himself from a game. He replied, "Hide it." He explained, "The bottom line is: You have to be able to put food on the table. No one's going to sign or want a guy who can't stay healthy. I know there will be a day when I'm going to have trouble walking. I realize that. But this is what I signed up for. Injuries are part of the game. If you don't want to get hit, then you shouldn't be playing."