One of the NFL’s fiercest players, Junior Seau, took his own life in May.
Recently, it came to light that Seau suffered from a degenerative brain disease often associated with repeated blows to the head.
Concussions and their harmful effects is the reason thousands of former football players are suing the NFL. Across the country, from doctors to college and youth coaches and players, more attention is being given to head injuries and the costs associated with them.
Former Ohio State football star Andrew Sweat was powerful on the field – whether he was tackling a ball carrier, sacking a quarter back or intercepting a pass.
“Football meant so much to me,” Sweat said. “I loved every minute of it. Every second of it.”
Sweat no longer is playing the game he loved because of multiple concussions.
“One my sophomore year, one my junior year and then two kind of back-to-back in the same week my senior year,” Sweat said.
The game that changed his life came against Purdue. He had hit his head a few days earlier but said nothing. When he suited up and went in the game, he got hit again.
That time, though, it was a different kind of hit.
“I could barely think, function. I knew something was bad, so I told the trainers,” Sweat said. “After about 10 minutes, I couldn’t walk. I had to pretty much be carried off the field, which was really scary.”
Sweat said that he had moments where he could not feel his hands or his feet.
It scared him enough that he walked away from a chance to play professionally with the Cleveland Browns.
“We know there is a cumulative effect, concussion after concussion after concussion,” said Dr. Kelsey Logan with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s sports medicine program.
Logan works with concussion victims to help them heal.
According to Logan, what alarms doctors about concussions is their unpredictability. One person might suffer multiple blows to the head and recover completely. For others, a single concussion may mean a lifetime of impairment.
Football players are particularly susceptible, whether from a helmet-to-helmet hit or from a smack to the ground.
An OSU cell biologist explains it this way:
“It’s sort of like a ball floating there,” said Dr. Noah Weisleder. “The brain is floating in the fluid, so it actually will collide with the side of the skull.”
Logan said that human brains are not designed to handle that type of force – which can cause headaches, dizziness, trouble balancing, and difficulty with reasoning.
She also said that multiple concussions can lead to Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s diseases down the road.
“The life they were living after a brain injury might be very different from the life they thought they were going to be living,” Logan said.
Nearly 4,000 former pro football players are suing the NFL, alleging that it failed to warn them about the links between concussions on the field and permanent brain injuries. NFL officials have said that the allegations have no merit.
Logan said that though medicines can help mask symptoms, there are no real cures to help the brain heal.
Dr. Lise Worthen-Chaudry, an Ohio State researcher in physical medicine and rehabilitation, said that she and her team are testing a social media game to see if it can help patients recover faster.
“It simplifies the to-do list of what you need to do,” Worthen-Chaudry said. “You think you could go out for a walk. And that walk could be a mile long. This app can help you remember, ‘You know what, take 10 steps, pat yourself on the back, because that was really hard for you this time.’”
Ohio State researchers worked with San Francisco designers to create Battle Royale. It has good guys, bad guys and ways to power up.
“There is research that shows different gaming structures stimulate different parts of the brain,” Worthen-Chaudry said. “For concussions versus stroke versus spinal cord injury, different parts of the brain are what you want to stimulate.”
Instead of taking instructions from a doctor, the game uses family, friends and teammates to send reminders and encouragement.
“We’re trying to help people learn to live again,” Worthen-Chaudry said. “We’re trying to do that within their social context.”
There are computer tests to check on healing and provide objective evidence as to when athletes might be ready to get back in the game. But instead of recovery, doctors dream of ways to prevent injuries in the first place.
Weisleder said that he thinks he may have found one.
He helped discover a gene called MG53 in heart and skeletal muscles. Those muscles move and sometimes tear, so this gene makes repairs. The doctor injected this “mini-repairman” into the brains of rodents with concussions.
“We’ve been able to find that MG53 functions very effectively in those cell types, even though it’s not normally there,” Weisleder said.
He said that the gene starts to repair damage to the brain cells and heals concussions. He plans to test the gene in pigs next, and then people within the next five years.
“We kind of envision it being used as sort of a molecular bandage,” Weisleder said. “There’s two phases of the damage. There’s the initial traumatic injury that takes place, and there’s downstream damage that also results in the death of cells.”
If the gene therapy works, it could prevent brain damage. Weisleder’s research is funded by one of the NFL charities, part of nearly $1 million awarded to scientists to study concussion prevention and treatment.
“I think the NFL is getting much, much better at measuring a concussion, determining whether or not there has been one, and getting that athlete better before they get back on the field and play,” Logan said.
Logan said that doctors are learning more about concussions every week.
She said she sees other obstacles, though – the players themselves.
“In the past, most athletes wouldn’t talk about a concussion or brain injury, because they didn’t want to sit on the sideline,” Logan said. “And still, somewhat, that is true. We need to change the culture to make sure that these athletes know that it is OK and even encouraged to say, ‘OK, something’s not right.’”
After his fourth concussion, Sweat said that he knew something was seriously wrong.
He sidelined himself and took a job in finance. He has plans for law school in the fall, after more recovery time.
Despite a rush of criticism about giving up his chance to go pro, Sweat decided his health was more important to him than the game of football.
Sweat said that he has no regrets.
“Football is an unbelievable game, but it is a game,” Sweat said. “I mean, there’s so much more life beyond football.”
The concern about concussions also extends to younger athletes. The Ohio Senate recently passed a bill to educate parents and youth coaches about concussion symptoms and require that kids who have received a immediately be pulled from the game.
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