Articles Posted in Sports Injuries

A groundbreaking study published last week by the New York Times has reverberated through the sports world. “A neuropathologist has examined the brains of 111 NFL players – and 110 were found to have CTE, the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head,” the paper writes.

A few days later, National Public Radio reported that the NFL was ending a $30 million research partnership with the National Institutes of Health. Citing original reporting by ESPN, NPR said that after almost five years nearly half of the funds the league committed to the study of brain injuries remained unspent “following a bitter dispute in 2015 in which the NFL backed out of a major study that had been awarded to a researcher who had been critical of the League.”

It goes without saying that youth and high school sports are a far cry from the NFL, but with these two stories in the news it is worth revisiting the issue of youth sports and TBI for two reasons. First, anyone playing in the NFL only got there after years of youth, high school and college football. It has long been established that head injuries have a cumulative effect, so it is incumbent on all of us to ask what can be done to minimize these injuries long before young people get to the professional level. Second, and more importantly, whatever one may think of the NFL’s approach and attitude toward concussion issues, professional football players enter each game with the best equipment possible – including helmets built to standards far more exacting than anything a middle or high school student wears onto the field. That, in turn, requires us to look carefully at both the practices and the laws governing youth contact sports to see whether we are doing everything we can to prevent injuries to children.

Two recent articles in the online health publication MedPage Today are the latest of a growing number of pieces questioning the effectiveness of “Heads Up” – the youth sports concussion awareness and prevention program sponsored by the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the journal outlines, “Heads Up was launched in 2003 by CDC’s Injury Center and 26 partners, including the National Football League, YMCA and medical societies. Organizers produce and distribute resources, statistics and overviews of concussion laws and policies focused on high school sports, youth sports, parents, schools and health care providers.” The NFL has sponsored its own variation on the program, canned “Heads Up Football.” Despite their similar names, the NFL’s program is not formally connected to or endorsed by the CDC, according to MedPage Today. It’s use, however, is mandatory in youth football programs here in Oregon according to the journal (the only other state that requires coaches and youth football programs to use Heads Up Football is Vermont, though the program has gained widespread acceptance nationwide). Heads Up Football is designed to promote safe tackling and blocking techniques.

The question, however, is whether it works and a lot of that is a question of enforcement. The article notes that a study in Texas found that “among 185 school athletes who were examined for concussions at the hospital’s sports clinic in 2014, 38% had returned to play the same day they suffered the head injury – without being cleared by a medical professional and despite medical guidelines and state law that should have kept the students on the sidelines.”

A lengthy article published earlier this month by the New York Times (see link below) is a fascinating addition to the growing public conversation here in the United States on youth sports and concussions.

The piece tells the story of one family’s struggle to change the laws related to concussions and youth sports in Scotland after their 14-year-old son “died after being hit in the head multiple times during a rugby match in which he should have been pulled from the field.” In the wake of their son’s death the bereaved parents became very public advocates for a re-thinking of youth sports and partnered with some of Britain’s most prominent doctors to “produce some of the most comprehensive concussion guidelines in the world.” The key difference between Scotland and the United States, according to the paper, is that the governing bodies of individual sports are no longer allowed to set their own protocols for when an athlete should be pulled off the field and how he or she should be assessed. Instead, “blanket guidelines aim to protect all amateur athletes and take the guesswork out of assessing potential concussions by calling for players to be removed from the game at the first suspicion of injury.”

While no equivalent national standard exists here in the United States we in Oregon are lucky enough to have something along these lines at the state level. In 2009 legislation known as “Max’s Law” required Oregon school districts to use a standard set of concussion guidelines. Four years later a companion piece of legislation known as “Jenna’s Law” extended that requirement to non-school athletic programs such as club sports, travel teams and leagues organized at the municipal or county level.

Raised awareness of the frequency of concussions among young people, particularly athletes, and the importance of treating them properly has led to a growing amount of scientific research on the subject. A particular focus of attention has been the best way to treat people in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic brain injury. Athletes, of course, should be removed from a game immediately, but the longer-term question of treatment during the days following an accident has received less attention.

According to a recent article in the New York Times new research is questioning one commonly recommended post-TBI treatment technique. Known as “cocoon therapy” the procedure, according to the newspaper, “entails mostly lying in a dark room for multiple days.” The Times reports that a new study suggests that among children “resting for longer than 24 to 48 hours is not beneficial for most young patients.”

“More isn’t always better,” the paper quotes a doctor at UCLA saying. “There was no advantage to prolonged rest.” It adds that this was not the conclusion the researchers expected to find when they set up the clinical trial. Instead, the study “found that the patients advised to rest for five days reported more physical symptoms like headache and nausea in the first few days, and more often experienced emotional symptoms like irritability and sadness over 10 days… The available evidence suggests that young patients with a concussion should rest away from school and work for the first 24 to 48 hours, experts said.”

An OHSU study just published in a medical journal may have uncovered key evidence linking Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injuries and, more importantly, hinted at a way both can be addressed medically according to a recent article in The Oregonian.

According to the newspaper, a scientific paper prepared by OHSU and a university in New York “discovered that a traumatic brain injury fouls up the brain’s waste removal system, causing toxic proteins to build up among the cells. A similar phenomenon exists with Alzheimer’s.” The article goes on to note that if TBI and Alzheimer’s do, indeed, stem from similar chemical causes then there is “hope that scientists will find a drug one day to slow the development of Alzheimer’s or neurodegeneration after a brain injury.”

According to The Oregonian’s account of the study, the breakthrough lies in the discovery of “the brain’s waste removal system.” It continues: “Scientists had long suspected that the brain, which is separated from the body by a protective blood-brain barrier, had a mechanism for flushing out waste. But they did not have a clue about the process.” Now, they do. Another important feature of the study is its identification of the failure of this waste-flushing process as the core cause of both Alzheimer’s and of many traumatic brain injuries – a link between the two conditions that has long been suspected but has been difficult to prove scientifically.

As we all prepare for another school year, SafeKids Oregon, an organization that regular readers will know I admire and support, is distributing an important report that is worth every parent’s attention. “Changing the Culture of Youth Sports” (see link below) offers essential information and perspective on injuries to children here in Oregon and elsewhere. The report is distributed by the umbrella organization SafeKids Worldwide. A summary can be found on the SafeKids Oregon homepage.

Among the report’s key findings are the disturbing fact that “One in four young athletes reported it is normal to commit hard fouls and play rough to ‘send a message’ during a game. This norm leads to a disturbing number of injuries: 33 percent of athletes report being hurt as the result of ‘dirty play’ from an opponent.” Among the report’s other key findings: “that athletes hide injuries to stay in the game” and that parents often try to get coaches to let their injured children participate in sports.

On one level none of this should be particularly surprising. From Hollywood’s images of sports in movies and TV shows to the sports broadcasts that can be found on television every night, sports culture celebrates toughness, ‘playing through the pain’ and a give-no-quarter attitude. Earlier this summer during the World Cup soccer tournament one player was celebrated for remaining in a game despite suffering a hard kick to the head – and despite the fact that TV viewers around the world could see that he was visibly woozy.

A former NFL player and a former pro wrestler traveled to Capitol Hill this week to warn fellow athletes about the dangers of traumatic brain injuries – but unlike many recent TBI-focused events in Washington in recent months the emphasis of this news conference was teens, not fellow retired pros.

According to a report published by CBS News both “Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate and former professional wrestler… and Ben Utecht, a former NFL player for the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, still suffer years later as a result of these all-too-common injuries.” Testifying before the Senate Special Committee on Ageing, both men focused not on the dangers to professionals like themselves, but on the damage and long-term consequences too many young people risk.

Nowinski told the senators that he suffered a head injury during a wrestling match at age 24, but ignored the symptoms for five weeks. “I lied about my symptoms for five weeks, thinking I was doing the right thing… My ignorance cost me my career, cost me at least five years of my health… and I don’t know what it’s going to cost me in the future,” he said. His biggest fear is CTE – a “progressive neurodegenerative disease (that) can emerge from repeated blows to the head.” He also spoke about the growing body of evidence hinting at a link between traumatic brain injuries sustained in youth and the onset of Alzheimer’s and similar diseases later in life.

Yesterday at the White House President Barack Obama hosted a special event designed to spotlight the dangers of concussions and traumatic brain injuries in youth sports. As someone who has worked and written on these issues for years it is inspiring to see them receiving this kind of attention at the presidential level.

Citing the Centers for Disease Control, the White House website notes that “kids and young adults make nearly 250,000 emergency room visits each year as a result of brain injuries from sport and recreation. And that doesn’t include visits that young people made to their family doctor, or those who don’t seek any help.”

To put these issues in the spotlight, Mr. Obama was introduced at the event by a teenage girl who suffered a concussion while playing soccer. The President told attendees that concussions “are not just a football issue. They don’t just affect grown men who choose to accept some risk to play a game they love and excel at. Every season, you’ve got boys and girls who are getting concussions in lacrosse and soccer and wrestling and ice hockey, as well as football.”

An announcement last week by New York’s University of Rochester received little attention in the national media, but deserves more. According to a news release from the university’s medical center, researchers there have made a significant breakthrough in the study of sports-related traumatic brain injuries, especially to children.

The medical center says the development of a new testing model “provides a foundation for scientists to better understand and potentially develop new ways to detect and prevent the repetitive sports injuries that can lead to the condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).” The key to the research is the discovery “that mice with mild, repetitive traumatic brain injury (TBI) develop many of the same behavioral problems, such as difficulty sleeping, memory problems, depression, judgment and risk-taking issues, that have been associated with the issue in humans.”

As the news release goes on to explain, the lack of a reliable animal-based testing model has held back research on repetitive TBI and other sports injuries. If the model stands up to further peer-reviewed research it could, over time, prove to be crucial not only in the diagnosis and treatment of sports injuries but in developing new treatments, equipment and procedures to prevent them. The news release quotes one of the Medical Center’s doctors summarizing the importance of the findings: “While public awareness of the long-term health risk of blows to the head is growing rapidly, our ability to scientifically study the fundamental neurological impact of mild brain injuries has lagged.”

When attention focuses on the question of sports and traumatic brain injuries we usually think of football, hockey or boxing. A new study from Boston University, however, highlights the potential TBI dangers of a sport we do not often think of as violent: soccer.

As outlined by the New York Times earlier this week, the study focuses on “encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head” which, it reports, “has been found posthumously in a 29-year-old former soccer player, the strongest indication yet that the condition is not limited to athletes who played sports known for violent collisions.” Equally intriguingly, the newspaper notes that the soccer player died of ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and offers evidence that the repeated head trauma involved in soccer may have played a role in his development of the disease at the relatively young age of 27.

The man mentioned in the article was a top-level college and semi-pro soccer player. The Times quotes his parents remembering his love of the game, and the pride he took at being good at heading the ball. It quotes a doctor who performed a brain examination after the player’s death saying that he had “extensive frontal lobe damage” of a type more commonly associated with football than soccer. The article cautions that there is no way to establish an irrefutable link between the game and these brain injuries, but the BU study concludes that this, and other data, are cause for both concern and for further study.