Concussions and the insidious aftermath: an athletic epidemic

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Concussions are a common occurrence for athletes and have serious long-term repercussions.

Photo by Carolyn Brown ’16 | Concussions are a common occurrence for athletes and have serious long-term repercussions.

 

Raegan Stokes ’19
Sports Editor

Every year there are an estimated 1.6 to 3.8 million sports- related concussions in the U.S. As an athlete myself, I feel lucky to have never experienced the turmoil of a severe concussion, but I have played with many athletes who have not been as fortunate. I have met several athletes that have had to end their athletic careers due to too many concussions. Sadly, this is common today. Concussions are considered a mild traumatic brain injury but nonetheless can be extremely devastating. Concussions occur from forces impacting the head causing a collision between the brain and the skull. The symptoms of concussions are fairly well-known: dizziness, fogginess, inability to concentrate and sensitivity to light and sound etc. What is not as well-known are the long-term effects of concussions.

Concussion symptoms can last for months up to a year. A typical concussion will resolve itself within a week, but can take up to a month to fully resolve. After three months, the symptoms are considered to be from post-concussion syndrome and are not directly associated with the concussion itself. An individual with post-concussion syndrome endures problems that can impact their physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral well-being. For some people the symptoms don’t stop here.

If an individual suffers multiple head traumas they can develop a disease called chronic traumatic encephalitis (CTE). CTE is an incredibly insidious neurodegenerative disease. A characteristic pathological finding in CTE patients is the presence of tau proteins and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. These interfere with cell-to-cell communication and ultimately lead to atrophy of the brain and impaired nerve firing. The symptoms start with cognitive decline, including memory loss, impulsive judgement and confusion. This slowly turns to emotional decline leading to depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts. If CTE progresses long enough, the individual will experience serious motor decline.

One of the first CTE cases was discovered in the brain of the infamous football player Terry Long, an offensive lineman for the Steelers, who was found dead at the age of 45 after drinking antifreeze.

CTE is a newly understood disease. There is no definitive age at which one is most likely to get this disease. In fact, CTE has been diagnosed in individuals as young as 18 years old. There is no cure or medication to directly reverse the damage to the brain. There is only medication to lessen the symptoms like depression and anxiety.

Besides these ominous facts, comes another haunting fact: 90 percent of all diagnosed CTE cases have occurred in athletes. Athletes are incredibly susceptible to post concussion symptoms and diseases like CTE because they are constantly put in an environment where the risk of a head injury is elevated. A study estimated that collegiate football players suffer an average of 420 to 2,492 impacts in a single season.

Concussions are nothing to brush off and neither are the symptoms. Athletes: listen to your bodies and let them heal. If your brain is screaming for help, don’t be stubborn. It is much more important to take care of your mental health than to play in that one game against your rivals. You don’t want that game to be your last.

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