As 2009 begins, instead of looking back at the year that was, I would like to discuss a topic that will certainly be in the headlines for years to come, concussions in sport. This can be a devastating injury, and it will be some time before we realize the true toll. Symptoms can linger for months or years, from headaches and vertigo, to severe depression, memory loss, and suicide. Even if the professional and amateur sports leagues make immediate changes, there is an increasing amount of evidence illustrating that more damage occurs to the brain than previously thought, and repeated concussions can have life-altering effects. An injury, once written off as “just having his bell rung” or “punch drunk”, can be as serious as a life threatening injury. Our ability to think, reason, and feel compassion, stems from the brain (pardon the pun). Injuries to our personal “super computer” can alter personality, devastate lives, and lead to great tragedy.
Work is currently under way at Boston University with the help of the Sports Legacy Institute into the long-term effects of concussions. Dr. Robert Cantu, Professor of Neurosurgery at Boston University, and Chris Nowinski, a university football player and former wrestler in the WWE, founded the Sports Legacy Institute in 2007. After numerous concussions, Nowinski retired with many debilitating injuries. A Harvard graduate, he has turned his attention to helping other athletes and their families learn and recover from their injuries.
Recent research has revealed a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy; an abnormal protein called “Tau” which builds up on the brain after repeated concussive injuries. Unfortunately, at this time, a post-mortem tissue analysis is required to confirm the diagnosis. The brain tissue of six former NFL players aged 36-50 was examined and five demonstrated significant damage and an abundance of the Tau protein. Several high profile athletes have agreed to donate their brain to the research efforts after their passing. The problem is certainly not limited to football and wrestling, several hockey players have had their careers shortened by concussions. Hall of Fame member Pat Lafontaine and Eric Lindros fought through numerous concussions during their careers and Eric’s younger brother Brett played less than two years in the NHL with the New York Islanders. After receiving numerous concussions during his time in the Ontario Hockey League, Brett Lindros had to make the difficult decision to leave the game he loves or risk permanent injury. Patrice Bergeron, a forward with the Boston Bruins now faces the same dilemma. Several weeks ago, he received another concussion after a routine hit, and his career is once again in jeopardy. Recent research suggests a minimum of one month without contact after a concussion; the current NHL policy is one week.
A change in equipment standards needs to be at the top of the list in the NHL. Players rarely have their chinstrap tightened correctly, and many concussions have occurred as the player falls to the ice and his helmet slides off, leaving his head vulnerable. The shoulder and elbow pads in the NHL have come a long way from the days of leather equipment; a player’s body has better protection now than in the past. However, the very equipment protecting them leaves their opponents vulnerable to devastating blows to the head. Last season, NHL players received seventy-four concussions - nineteen caused by shoulder or upper-arm hits to the head. A change of attitude is also required in the professional leagues. The NFL and NHL continue to view each concussion as an isolated incident and not a major problem plaguing their leagues, and unfortunately, more of our young athletes will have their careers end prematurely. Have a great sports day everyone, and a happy, healthy 2009