In 2012, a professional football player named Junior Seau was found dead, as a result of a suicide. The story of his death has brought an under the radar issue to the forefront, and since then has led to a number of changes in the way the game of football is played.
It has been reported that Seau may have experienced concussions numbering in the hundreds during his playing days – one report has that number at 1,500 – and reports add those traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are what led to his death.
What started out as TBI led to a bigger issue for those experiencing multiple injuries known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and a post mortem diagnosis determined that Seau had CTE.
It is in CTE where brain injuries turn into something much more serious as mental illness begins to manifest itself in the life of the individual.
While much research is still needed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is beginning to recognize that symptoms of depression and anxiety have been found in those who face CTE, as have mood swings, personality changes, memory loss and, in cases like Seau’s, suicide. However, the CDC officially states the link between CTE and suicide is unclear.
What is clear is that studies are showing the link between mental health symptoms and TBI, which indicates just how important it is for people who think they may have suffered a concussion to get checked out and if a concussion has been diagnosed to go through the proper follow-up care.
While it is in sports that concussions have garnered the most attention, the reality is that they can happen in a number of different settings, including many types of TBI. In fact, statistics show one of the population groups that often find themselves facing concussions and TBI more often are those who have served in the military.
According to the National Institutes of Health, many of the studies related to TBI have been conducted amongst those in the military, as some have begun too conclude there may be a direct link between TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While facing a head injury is a common occurrence, most do not rise to the level of a concussion, but there are symptoms that will show up that might indicate the injury has risen to that level.
The Minnesota State High School League has implemented a number of rules in recent years to address concussions. Studies have shown a concussion can have a much more serious impact on the brain of a youth as their brains are still developing. The high school league offered a list of signs and symptoms for coaches, sports officials and parents to look for in dealing with an athlete who might have sustained a concussion.
• A feeling of “fogginess”
• Difficulty concentrating
• Slowed thought process
• Memory issues
• Lack of energy
• Blurred vision
• Sensitivity to light
• Mood changes
Schools across Minnesota have implemented a program whereby students who plan to play sports must first undergo a cognitive test that establishes a base line for each individual student. When there is a question about whether or not that student has a concussion, the baseline information can play a part in determining the diagnosis.
The bottom line for the Minnesota High School League is “when it doubt, sit them out.”
While it is assumed the coaches of any particular sport where concussions can happen will do the right thing (the list is not limited to football, as any sport where contact is taking place, blows to the head may happen or the potential for falling may occur – i.e. basketball, soccer, wrestling, gymnastics, etc. – could lead to concussions), parents are encouraged to speak up for their child if they have any concerns at all.
One concussion can pose a problem, but if that initial concussion is not properly addressed and another concussion occurs the potential for more significant problems down the road in terms of mental health may occur.
No, that does not mean parents should keep their children from playing sports, as research also shows those students who are involved in athletics see an increased level of success in the classroom because of their involvement in sports.
What the Minnesota State High School League stresses is playing the games the right way. In most cases, that means keeping your head up.
According to the NIH, the concept behind CTE was initially discovered in the late 1920s in the world of boxing, as those in the ring began showing signs of what was then described as being “punch drunk.”
To learn more about CTE, visit the CDC Web site at www.cdc.gov.
The MSHSL concussion protocol can be found online at mshsl.org.