Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) are injuries that are characterized when there is a blow to the head. Whether it’s by a gunshot wound that penetrates through the skull or something non-invasive such as hitting your head in a car accident or off another players head during a football game, TBI’s can range in severity as well as recovery time. Where athletes are concerned, there is a lot of new information that’s being uncovered about preventative measures, testing and treatment options to help speed up recovery times, decrease the amount of brain inactivity and helping the patient return to a functioning life. Let’s take a short look into how TBI’s have affected certain athletes and how their prognosis affected their careers.
When a TBI occurs, it’s usually classified as mild, moderate or severe. The classification is contingent on the amount of time the individual is rendered unconscious against how long they suffer cognitive symptoms. Probably one of the more recent instances of an athlete with a TBI is former New England Patriots TE, Aaron Hernandez. Most of us, if not all of us knows the story and tragic ending of Aaron Hernandez, famed tight end for the Patriots to convicted murderer to suicide statistic. Before doctors performed his autopsy, there was some speculation as to whether Hernandez had a varying degree of a TBI or something along those lines due to his mood swings and questionable behavior. When the autopsy was preformed, what physicians found was way worse than just a TBI. What they discovered was something called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE and after his autopsy, Hernandez was said to have Stage 3 CTE. What CTE is is brain degeneration due to repeated head traumas causing concussions, depression, short-term memory loss and impulsive behavior. It’s important to not that CTE cannot be seen in a living body and only when the body is in a post-mortem state can the forensic pathologist or attending physician see the damage of the brain fully. CTE isn’t the same as a concussion because concussions are reversible and CTE is degenerative. Like Alzheimer’s disease, CTE decreases brain functioning over a period of time, the main difference between the two is that CTE/TBI patients have taken one or many blows to their head which creates distortion between the brain signals and how the body reacts. Like most disease or disorders, CTE has a wide range of symptoms, such as suicidal thoughts, depression, mood changes, anxiety, paranoia and addictive behaviors. Due to the fact that CTE can’t be diagnosed until after death, making the connections between what symptoms can be seen in a patient while alive is difficult given that scientists and doctors can’t see the causes under their microscopes just yet in a living person.
Obviously CTE isn’t just linked to football players but in recent history, that is where is has been mostly seen. Former players such as Junior Seau, Mike Webster, Chris Henry and Frank Gifford just to name a few all had varying degrees of CTE that probably affected their ability to make sound decisions, go day to day without experiencing depressive moods or even hyperactivity. Weeks following Hernandez’s autopsy, doctors were saying that his 27 year old brain had the makings of an 84 year old who had severe Alzheimer’s disease. This means that throughout his professional career with all of the blows to his head, Aaron Hernandez’s brain had been severely diminished. Reports of his sexuality and denial of his being a gay man started to surface during the court trials when he was convicted of murder and thought to have been a key factor in why he had murdered his victims, although no real clarification was ever made in that regard.
If a person with a normal functioning brain had been facing those troubles with their sexuality, balancing a football career and family and normal adult issues, they would be able to sort out the severity of their own actions, weight the consequences about murdering a person and seeking therapy. Again, the big problem is that medical science hasn’t quite caught up to diagnosing CTE pre-death but progress is being made on finding certain patterns in patients with TBI’s who are presenting diminishing cognitive skills. After looking at cat scans of these patients, doctors are able to see patterns from one to the other of gray matter in the brain that are not present in other TBI patients who are not as severe. This helps create a baseline of sorts when physicians are determining where the line can be drawn when a person is on the borderline of being diagnosed with a TBI as opposed to CTE and vice versa.
The National Football League and the medical community in general have said, “Every time you have a tackle or a collision, you’re going to have these rapid forces affecting the brain.…That’s one of the difficulties of keeping football safe.” Wearing helmets while engaged in playing football isn’t enough but it’s the safest way that is known to help cushion the brain in case of a hard tackle which results in a blow to the head. Hernandez’s frontal lobes of his brain were severely diminished. The frontal lobes are responsible for decision-making, reasoning, communication, problem-solving, judgment, impulse control, and social behavior. If you look at the events from the time he was convicted of murder to his suicide, you can definitely point out instances where each of these factors came into play with abnormalities of a 27 year-old adult male.
So what can we learn from this? A lot actually. The upside to a very dark ending for a very promising young athlete is that Hernandez’s brain can now be used to study CTE and different brain disorders in athletics, therefore helping to create safer rules and regulations concerning stricter guidelines on wearing helmets/pads, etc. Again, football is not the only sport that has this issue, both hockey, wrestling and boxing athletes have experienced the same instances with CTE as well. Sports are great to participate in but keep in mind that the brain is a closed space. Once you experience a concussion or tough jarring of the skull, it’s very easy for the brain to experience a lapse in memory, judgement-making skills and communication issues. Always err on the side of caution and be safe. Wear a helmet or other protective gear while on the field, court, mat or ice. If you put those caps on your heads, your brain will thank you in the long run!
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John J. Schessler is a Pittsburgh-based Wellness Coach & Personal Trainer specializing in Sports Injury and Orthopedics. He is also a Men’s Life Coach and host of the podcast, “ManAlive!”, available on Apple iTunes and Spotify. If you wish to contact him concerning personal training, podcast interviews and bookings, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.