Hard hits: what you need to know about concussions and CTE
With Super Bowl 50 right around the corner, most people's excitement is growing around the final matchup, the commercials and halftime show. But another discussion that has been prominent the entire National Football League (NFL) season is about hard hits - specifically concussions.
Both the Will Smith movie "Concussion," which highlighted the concussion-related condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players, and the tragic death of 27-year-old Tyler Sash, a former New York Giants' player who had a high level of CTE, have raised public concern.
But the medical community has been well aware of sports-related concussions for some time.
"The medical community has always focused on the seriousness of head injuries and those within football are even more committed to providing greater safety," said Matthew McElroy, D.O., a Geisinger orthopaedics-sports medicine physician. "There are now more concussion-related safety protocols in place for players at all levels of the game. And the helmet technology has also improved considerably to try and prevent concussions."
Yet football is a contact sport and concussions can't be eliminated entirely. While concussions are the least serious type of traumatic brain injury (TBI), they're still in fact a brain injury caused by a bump or blow to the head that shakes the brain inside the skull. They can cause some significant side effects.
"Adults with concussions find that the injury can negatively impact their ability to work and focus on their professional and personal responsibilities," Dr. McElroy said. "Children with concussions see a similar impact on their ability to perform and concentrate at school, in extracurricular activities and in their social lives."
Symptoms can last for days, weeks or even longer. In some cases, these symptoms are subtle or not apparent right away.
"Common symptoms after suffering a concussion are confusion, headache and loss of memory," Dr McElroy said.
Other signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling dazed
- Slurred speech
- Nausea or vomiting
- Clumsiness, dizziness or balance issues
- Sensitivity to light and/or noise
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in behavior or personality
Symptoms of a concussion are typically exacerbated by mental or physical activity.
The NFL has recently taken a stricter stance on head injuries and concussions, in part because of the discovery of CTE on the brains of its former players.
"CTE is a devastating progressive degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive brain trauma, including concussions," Dr. McElroy said.
While CTE isn't a new condition - it's been known to affect boxers since the 20s - recent studies have confirmed the disease in deceased professional football players and other athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
"The repetitive trauma appears to trigger the progressive degeneration of brain tissue that can begin anywhere between months, years or decades after the last brain injury or retirement from sports," Dr. McElroy said. CTE is linked to memory loss, impaired judgment, confusion, aggression, impulse control and, eventually, progressive dementia.
"We really cannot say how many concussions might lead to CTE," Dr. McElroy said. "We are really in the investigative phase with this whole phenomenon."