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Concussions and Sports: What We Now Know

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Concussion is a 2015 biographical sports medical drama based on the journey of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian forensic pathologist who started a nationwide discussion about concussions, and their long term effects on football players. Dr. Omalu, played by Will Smith, was performing a routine autopsy on deceased Hall of Fame Steelers center, Mike Webster, when he discovered that Webster’s brain included tangles of tau protein consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Dr. Omalu continued his research and soon discovered that the degenerative brain disease, CTE, was present in professional football players living and dead. What followed was stonewall tactics from the NFL, as the league sought to suppress the doctor’s research. The good doctor stayed vigilant in his fight to make the world aware of the long term and dangerous effects of concussions, and the result has been nationwide media coverage, a blockbuster film, and a chain of events that eventually led to a class action lawsuit.

The NFL concussion lawsuit settlement is currently open to every single retired or deceased NFL player. The agreement lasts for the next 65 years in order to compensate men who’ve been injured, but aren’t currently facing symptoms. There has never been such a spotlight on concussion and its many hidden dangers, and it’s all due to Dr. Omalu’s discovery.

What is a Concussion?

A concussion is a disruption of the brain that occurs after a hard blow has been received to the head or body. The unfortunate consequence of concussion is that its initial symptoms may be mild, but it’s possible that it can cause “significant and lifelong impairments,” says concussion expert Dr. A. Chainey Umphrey. Umphrey admits that he’s seen concussions ruin the lives of young sports players.

In professional football, many blows are sustained including hard blows to the head. Dr. Omalu believes that more than 90 percent of professional football players suffer from CTE; although, he has not tested every single player. Of the players he has examined, every single one tested positive for CTE. To make a diagnosis the pathologist uses biochemical and radiological markers.

Using What’s Been Learned

Dr. Omalu’s research resulted in a 2013 call for greater attention to concussions from the Institute of Medicine across the age spectrum. Their biggest concern is the effects of concussions on children, but all ages are being researched to learn more about the dangers of sustained concussions. The sports with the highest risk of concussion are football, hockey, wrestling, boxing, lacrosse, soccer, and basketball.

Epidemiologists from the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention analyzed information collected for a period of one year, and were able to determine the following:

  • 1 in 20 college football players sustained at least one concussion per season
  • 1 in 14 high school football players sustained at least one concussion per season
  • And, 1 in 30 youth players sustained at least one concussion per season

Because concussions have been determined to be so dangerous, and yet so little is known about them, the National Institutes of Health, the Pentagon, and sports leagues are spending millions of dollars on upcoming research. Their goals are to better understand if certain people are more prone to concussions, how to detect concussions, whether there are drugs that can be administered to limit brain damage, and they’re developing high-power imaging techniques to show how much nerve damage is sustained post-concussion.

Although treatments for concussions have changed little in recent years (you no longer have to wake up a concussed patient every few hours to check on them), it can be expected they’ll change greatly as more information is learned. And, Dr. Omalu’s research has inspired many to engineer new ways to keep players safe on the field, including engineering impact-mitigating helmets and tethering systems. If safer equipment and new rules can be derived, society can mitigate this disaster and continue enjoying America’s game without the fear of lasting brain damage for players.

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