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“I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” President Barack Obama opined in the New Republic. “You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on.”
As millions of Americans prepare to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, the country has recently learned former Pro Bowl NFL linebacker, Junior Seau, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) before the 43-year-old committed suicide with a gunshot wound to his chest (to allow his brain to be studied).
Seau joins a list of 32 other former NFL players who were diagnosed with CTE after their death, including former Pro Bowl Bears safety Dave Duerson who also committed suicide with a gunshot wound to his chest with instructions to have his brain donated for research.
"Hopefully lessons from his great struggle, with the kind of brain injuries those hits might have caused, will help today's players down the road,” President Obama noted during a White House ceremony with the 1985 Super Bowl Champs, Chicago Bears.
CTE is a progressive degenerative neurologic disease that results in dementia.
After the suicide of a 21-year-old college football lineman, Owen Thomas, an autopsy revealed he had CTE and after 17-year-old Nathan Stiles died due to multiple brain injuries playing high school football, his autopsy showed he also had CTE (the youngest athlete to be afflicted with it so far).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 765,000 American youth under 25 years of age enter an emergency department every year with a new brain injury -- over 80,000 are hospitalized and over 11,000 die annually.
Brain injuries are categorized as “mild,” moderate and severe with more than 75% of these emergency room visits described as “mild.” Concussions are a type of “mild” brain injury. The term “mild” is a poor choice to describe any brain injury.
I don’t think the parents of Owen Thomas or Nathan Stiles consider their sons’ concussions as “mild.” Another way of looking at the problem is imagine telling someone they had a “mild” cancer.
The CDC states that “mild” TBI/concussion “results in a constellation of physical, cognitive, emotional and/or sleep-related symptoms and may or may not involve a loss of consciousness. Duration of symptoms is highly variable and may last from several minutes to days, weeks, months, or longer in some cases.”
The medical field is currently in the midst of a paradigm shift regarding sports-concussion assessment and management of the injury. There is more scientific evidence available in the area of sports concussion over the past decade, than the previous fifty years combined, however, we still have more questions than answers. The CDC reports that there are 1.6 to 3.8 million sports and recreation concussive injuries per year in the United States alone.
Will banning football solve the problem of concussions?
The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Center for Injury Research and Policy studied 20 different high school sports and while football had the highest overall rate of concussions, the second highest sport was girls’ soccer, followed by boys’ wrestling and then girls’ basketball.
In fact, in sports with both boys and girls teams, girls had a higher concussion rate than boys. The problem of concussions also goes beyond high school or college sports.
In another study published in the Journal of Athletic Training which looked at high school soccer, girls sustained concussions 68 percent more often than boys did. Female concussion rates in high school basketball were almost three times higher than among boys. Neither of these studies included many other sports such as motor-cross racing, snowboarding or after school or weekend activities.
As the leading cause of death and disability for American youth, concussions and other brain injuries do not just happen on the football field or in the sports arena. Clearly, banning football is not the answer. So what should can we do?
We need to come together as a nation and develop the best plan possible to prevent, identify and treat this public health crisis. And then we need to fund this plan. The federal government only spends about $10 million annually on research directed towards pediatric brain injury, while the NFL has already committed $30 million to the National Institutes of Health to study brain injury. Just this week the NFL Players Union announced an additional $100 million to fund research at Harvard.
The International Advisory Board of the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation has already created the best plan possible and there is already broad-based, bipartisan support to implement the seven-year, $2.9 billion National Pediatric Acquired Brain Injury Plan (PABI Plan).
The PABI Plan develops a seamless, standardized, evidence-based system of care that is universally accessible for the millions of American youth suffering from a brain injury. Now all we need is President Obama to say, “Yes we can!”