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What Is the Connection between Football and Brain Damage?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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The connection between American football and brain damage occurs principally because football players may suffer one or more concussions during their tenure, which can cause lasting injury and deterioration of the brain. Most concerning is that players may develop a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which cannot be diagnosed until someone has died. CTE was once principally associated with boxing, and the high number of hits individuals took to the face and head, causing multiple concussions. Unfortunately, football and brain damage of this type have been increasingly linked together, as more football players have been diagnosed with CTE after what are often early deaths.

American football is undoubtedly an aggressive sport, and even when wearing a helmet, a strong risk of serious head injury is present. Evidence gathered in the 2000s has led the professional leagues to try to reduce concussions and change the protocol for how they are treated. For example, players judged to have a concussion can no longer simply rejoin a game because they feel better, which was permissible in the 1990s. A better understanding of football and brain damage suggests that concussion symptoms don’t always arise immediately after an injury, and a more wary stance is required to make certain damage isn’t significant.

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It is not yet known how many injuries a player can sustain before brain damage becomes permanent. The specific cause of CTE is a buildup of proteins in the brain that affect its function. This protein aggregation appears to greatly increase with more frequent injuries to the head. It isn’t known if all people with numerous head injuries get this condition, but it’s certain that football players fall into a high-risk group for regularly sustaining concussions.

The symptoms of CTE illustrate the gravity of ignoring the relationship between football and brain damage. This condition can begin with moodiness, anger management problems, impulse control issues, and severe depression. Some people in early stages commit suicide. As it progresses, CTE begins to resemble Alzheimer’s disease, with a reduction in physical movement and symptoms like delirium and dementia.

The growing awareness of the connection between high school, college, and professional football and brain damage has led to a number of ideas on how the problem ought to be handled. Some have suggested that perhaps people should not continue to play at all, if they receive a second concussion. This idea is not usually popular.

Another proposed solution is to develop helmets that are more protective of players’ heads and more likely to prevent concussions. It’s been pointed out that helmet construction is not that modern and a redesigned device might be better. These ideas still don’t eliminate the basic risks of a contact sport like football, and it’s unclear they’ll be successful in preventing CTE.

The strongest connection between football and brain damage lies in the names of some of the victims of CTE, such as Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Tom McHale; Miami Dolphin, John Grimsley; and Cincinnati Bengal, Chris Henry. Other players who have tested positive for CTE in post-mortem analysis include Dave Duerson, Mike Webster, and Lou Creekmur. It isn’t known how many present or ex-players live with this condition or are at risk for developing it.

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