Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Football and the Damage Done

Like millions of Americans, I enjoy watching football games on TV. Mostly, I prefer college football, but I do enjoy watching professional football. And I'll be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday night.

If you watch football, though, you know there are some pretty vicious hits administered. Most of the concerns that are expressed when a player has received such a hit and is lying on the ground for an extended period afterward have revolved around whether the injury may cause paralysis so when a player gets up and is able to walk off the field under his own power, that is generally taken as a good sign by most fans.

I recall a comic strip — either "Doonesbury" or "Tank McNamara" — from many years ago in which a couple of the characters were seen watching a football game on TV. The panels in the comic strip only showed the characters and the side view of the TV they were watching, but you could read the dialogue that was being spoken by the announcers. They were speculating about the nature of an injury suffered by one of the players. Then one of the announcers intoned that the player in question appeared to be dead.

"But what a hand he's getting!" his colleague said.

"These are some kind of football fans!" the first announcer agreed.

But it's no joking matter.

Many football teams play on artificial surfaces, which are really nothing more than asphalt covered with green plastic that may look like grass — but being tackled on it is like being tackled in the middle of the street in front of your house.

For years, fans have known that players suffer concussions almost routinely. There were many questions about concussions and, as CNN reports, those in the medical community couldn't tell athletes — or anyone else, really — much more than the obvious — that a concussion was "a jarring blow to the head that temporarily stunned the senses, occasionally leading to unconsciousness."

A concussion was considered an "invisible injury," CNN's medical producer Stephanie Smith reports. It couldn't be tested. No MRI or CT scan could detect it.

But Smith reports that the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at the Boston University School of Medicine is learning about concussions and the damage they cause to the brain by studying brain tissue taken from dead professional football players. Their findings can have an important influence on contact sports, perhaps leading to improvements in artificial surfaces and protective headgear.

No one is suggesting banning football, but concussions clearly cause more extensive brain damage than most people probably imagined. And it's important to study the affect of multiple concussions on athletes to learn more. Smith says that about 100 athletes have already given their consent for their brains to be studied after they die.

Damage from multiple concussions is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Mass., tells CNN that CSTE studies have revealed "brown tangles" throughout the brain that resemble the kinds of tangles found in elderly patients with dementia.

There's still a lot of research that needs to be done. There appear to be a variety of symptoms of extensive, long-term damage, but the most frequent ones include depression, sleep disorders and headaches.

The research that has been done is good, but much more needs to be done.

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