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The impact of repeated head injuries on young football players

Posted at: 01/10/2013 11:52 PM
Updated at: 01/10/2013 11:53 PM
By: Robin De Wind

NFL linebacker Junior Seau was suffering from a degenerative brain disease when he took his own life last May. That was the finding of the National Institution of Health and that has prompted a concern for parents of children playing contact sports.

This study reinforces what emergency room doctors have been saying all along: there needs to be a change in how to deal with brain injuries to athletes starting at a young age. While much of the recent focus has been on single concussion hits, Seau's autopsy released on Thursday show it's repetitive hits over time that can do even more harm.

Seau was one of football's fiercest players on the field for nearly two decades. His suicide last year was a shock for many players and fans. The results of a new NIH study sheds some light on what may have lead Seau to take his own life.

Doctors conducted a study of three unidentified brains, one of which was Seau's and found Seau's brain suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

"This is kind of a new frontier in concussion research," says Doctor Jeff Bazarian, concussion expert at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "There's been a few studies, including ones we've done here, that show not even a concussion, but multiple hits to the head cause some subtle brain injuries."

The disease shows up in people who have had repetitive head injuries and symptoms include mood swings, insomnia, depression and violence. Seau's family says he exhibited those symptoms in private and it became worse before he shot himself.

Dr. Bazarian says CTE could be an even larger problem than individual concussions. Adding Seau's results should spark new conversations about how to prevent these repetitive hits.

"We're talking about guys in their 30's and 40's, that have had their brains autopsied,"says Dr. Bazarian. "That's pretty hard proof that there's something going on with concussion, repetitive head hits and repetitive brain injury. That's really helped us inform the public of the risks."

He adds that prevention of these type of injuries is the key. He says it should start with kids. Coaches and parents should encourage proper tackling and hitting. Increased awareness about concussion symptoms and how to treat head injuries should be both be a priority.

Dr. Bazarian says, "I think it's more of a seeing is believing type of thing. When you can see the brain and see that its looks like the brain of an eighty-year-old when they are forty. Whether they are an NFL player or somebody else, I think that's very helpful for the public and for science to say 'guys we got a problem here.'"

The NFL has committed $30 million for a research grant to the NIH for the study of CTE. Health experts insist there has to be a culture change when it comes to contact sports and prevention of these injuries.