Consequences of Concussions for Football Players & Soldiers: Introduction
Learning more about the effect of concussions on elite athletes and military service members has exposed a nasty side of two professions so many of us admire. Concussions are a common occurrence for NFL football players and soldiers. For many years we’ve thought that as long as the player or soldier was able to return to work there wasn’t much cause for concern. We’re learning more all the time about the devastating effects these concussions are having on some people.
Concussions are brain injuries suffered as a result of mild or severe blows to the head. Even concussions that seem very mild can have terrible effects and repeat concussions are an especially great cause for concern.
Any type of injury or disease affecting the brain falls into a category called Encephalopathy. As a result of concussions people can experience a variety of diagnoses falling under this umbrella, including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), migraines and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Not everyone who receives a blow to the head ends up living with one of these conditions. At this time we don’t know why some people do while others don’t.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can cause troubling symptoms like confusion, migraines, headaches, mental fog, dizziness, vertigo, blurred vision, delayed reaction time and memory loss. While some people will eventually recover from these symptoms, some people never do and will need assistance for the rest of their lives to do even the most basic tasks.
The same migraine attacks so many of us deal with are often suffered by people who have experienced one or more concussions. For many of these people it is possible to return to work despite their attacks. For others the migraine attacks can nearly ruin their careers and heavily impact their personal lives.
One of the worst case scenarios for people who have experienced concussions is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a devastating, terminal disease. According to the ALS Association, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy (wasting away). The mean lifespan for someone diagnosed with ALS is three to five years, though some people live longer. Although symptoms can vary widely from person to person, muscle weakness and paralysis are almost universally experienced by ALS patients. As the weakness and paralysis spread to the person’s trunk, his or her speech, swallowing, breathing and chewing are compromised. Eventually the patient needs permanent breathing help to survive.
For many years nearly everyone surrounding football, from coaches to players to commentators to fans dismissed the kind of hits that knock a player out cold or leave him so woozy he doesn’t know where he is and can’t see straight. “Oh, he just got his bell rung,” you often hear a fellow fan say as though a knee or groin injury is somehow much worse than a brain injury. The whole idea of writing off the kind of hit that knocks a player unconscious seems increasingly ludicrous the more we learn about the horrible effects those hits can have.
The traditionally macho atmosphere of the military has lead to similar dismissal of the serious effects of concussions. Not only does this result in soldiers feeling reluctant to be honest about how they are feeling after a head trauma, they often feel an internal pressure to return to the field because they believe they should be tough enough to do that.
The good news is that there is a growing effort to learn more about how these brain injuries are affecting players and soldiers and how to prevent them. This piece is the first in a series of three articles about the impact of concussions on football players and soldiers, the efforts to learn how to prevent them and research on how to treat people who have already been affected.
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