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Boxers Experience Acute and Permanent Brain Damage


Although it may be no surprise that boxers can develop brain damage from repeated blows to the head, a new study has identified the acute complications and long-term consequences of engaging in this sport. Researchers from the Technical University Munich find that up to 20 percent of professional boxers develop neuropsychiatric problems.

Both amateur and professional boxers can suffer brain damage

In the new study, the investigators reviewed 303 articles published over the past decade on boxing. Among their many findings was that a knock-out, which is a cerebral concussion, causes the most relevant acute consequences, and that these concussions usually occur among professional boxers who do not wear head gear.

The researchers also reported a 24 percent injury rate among 545 professional boxers who fought in a total of 907 matches. Among 632 professional boxers questioned about symptoms the day after a bout, nearly 50 percent said they had persistent headache, ringing in the ears, forgetfulness, impaired hearing, dizziness, nausea, and difficulty walking. About 10 percent said they had constant forgetfulness, headache, and other symptoms.

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Up to 20 percent of professional boxers suffer from persistent, serious neuropsychiatric symptoms, including tremor, Parkinson’s disease, memory disorders, dementia, depression, irritability, aggression, and addiction. The risk of boxer’s dementia (dementia pugilistica), which is similar to Alzheimer’s disease, increases the longer a boxer continues his or her career.

In one 2007 study that looked at amateur boxers, researchers reported on the damage caused by blows to the head. To make that determination, the researchers from Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Sweden examined the cerebrospinal fluid of 14 amateur boxers after a fight and then after three months of no boxing. Ten nonboxers were used as controls.

The boxers had levels of neurofilament light (NFL), which suggests brain damage, four times higher than those in nonboxers. The increased levels returned to normal after three months of not boxing. Among boxers who had received 15 or more high impact blows to the head, the NFL levels were 7 to 8 times higher after a fight compared with those after a three-month rest. The researchers concluded that “repeated hits to the head are potentially damaging to the central nervous system.”

Although amateur boxers undergo a medical examination that includes an electrocardiogram, eye, and laboratory tests yearly and before their matches, professional boxers fight without these protective measures. The authors of the new study note that in view of their findings, similar protective steps are suggested for professional boxers.

American Academy of Neurology (May 3, 2007). Retrieved Dec. 11, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070502093035.htm
Forstl H et al. Deutsches Arzteblatt Intl 2010; 107(47): 835-39