Catastrophic Brain Injuries on the Rise in High School Football

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Updated January 2019.

Professional football players and athletes aren’t the only ones at risk for degenerative brain damage from concussions, hard hits and other game injuries.

Four wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against the NCAA for failing to protect college football players from head injuries, according to news reports.

There could potentially be thousands more such lawsuits, as former college and high school football players begin to experience symptoms and cognitive changes from injuries they suffered on the field.

A Boston University study of former football players brains donated to the Brain Bank found degenerative brain disease, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is associated with concussions and other head trauma, in 91 percent of the former college players’ brains.

«I think we’re only seeing the beginnings of this,» said Chris Nowinski, who leads the Concussion Legacy Foundation and is the author of «Head Games: The Global Concussion Crisis.» «I think it’s likely that there are more college football players suffering from CTE than there are former NFL players in terms of gross numbers.»

In June, the NCAA settled a lawsuit with the family of a former University of Texas football player who suffered brain injuries as a player, which later led to dementia, physical and mental decline and his death at age 66. A jury in 2017 found that the NCAA was legally responsible for Greg Ploetz’s injuries and death decades after his playing career.

In 2014, as part of a settlement in a class-action lawsuit about concussions, the NCAA set up a $70 million fund to test former and current college athletes for brain injuries.

College athletes who played any sport at an NCAA member school are entitled to free medical testing and monitoring, up to two times, over the next 50 years. Athletes do not need to have been diagnosed with a concussion to be eligible for this medical monitoring. You can learn more here.

According to numerous research studies, these types of injuries are on the rise among young players, not just the pros, and they could cause long-term health problems. In fact, one study found that high school players face three times the risk of suffering a catastrophic head injury than college players.

Every day, we are learning more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in football players, military veterans, boxers, hockey players and other athletes in contact sports.

The progressive, degenerative disease affects people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries, according to the Brain Injury Research Institute. With CTE, the brain gradually deteriorates and loses mass over time. Some areas of the brain may atrophy over time, while other areas may become enlarged.

Patients may experience memory loss, difficulty controlling impulsive or erratic behavior, impaired judgment, behavioral disturbances including aggression and depression, difficulty with balance, and a gradual onset of dementia.

CTE is similar to Alzheimer’s disease, and it has been found in more than 85 percent of tackle football players studied in the last decade, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The disease has been found in people as young as 17, but symptoms generally don’t occur until years or decades later.

If you or someone you love has CTE, or you suspect it, it’s important to seek treatment and support. The Concussion Legacy Foundation has lots of great educational information and resources for patients and their families. You may also have legal options if you’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury, CTE, concussion or other head injuries. Contact our offices for help.

CTE also has been linked to the suicides of several high-profile professional athletes and at least one murder-suicide by a pro wrestler. A new ESPN documentary, “Seau,” examines the life of legendary San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who died in 2012 by suicide related to CTE.

According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a new study suggests that athletes who play contact sports athletes may also be at increased risk for Lewy Body Disease, or LBD, which can cause Parkinson’s disease.

“We found the number of years an individual was exposed to contact sports, including football, ice hockey, and boxing, was associated with the development of neocortical LBD, and LBD, in turn, was associated with parkinsonism and dementia,” said study author Thor Stein, MD, PhD, neuropathologist at VA Boston Healthcare System and assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at BUSM.

Until recently, CTE only could be definitely diagnosed after death through a scan of brain tissue. Diagnosis in living patients was further complicated by the fact that symptoms of CTE — headaches, depression, memory loss, anger and impulse control issues, anxiety, sleeplessness and suicidal tendencies – can mimic other conditions.

In 2017, researchers from a Chicago area hospital reported that they had found a way to identify the disease in living patients, according to news reports. Boston University researchers have also identified a biomarker – elevated levels of a certain protein in the brain – that likely indicates CTE.

 

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