Chris Henry, a former West Virginia football player who played in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals, died at the age of 26 after falling off a moving vehicle during an argument. After his death in 2009, an autopsy revealed that Henry was suffering from significant brain damage as a result of all the concussions he had sustained during his football career. The autopsy results showed that Henry’s brain resembled that of an elderly person suffering from severe Alzheimer’s disease.
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Henry is just one of many football players who suffer significant brain damage as a result of repeated blows to the head, which cause concussions or traumatic brain injuries that alter brain function. If the concussion is severe, the brain may swell. Even minor concussions involve headaches, dizziness, and concussions can cause impairment of memory, judgment, balance, and coordination. Each year, about 67,000 concussions are reported during football games. That means there is at least one concussion in every American football game.
Clay Harbor, the 25-year-old tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles, rocks his head after a tackle.
Research shows that repeated concussions can cause long-term damage to the brains of football players, in some cases, producing the kind of memory loss and addled thinking found in patients with severe Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
“What you are seeing in the NFL – long-term effects [ranging from] suicides to memory loss and dementia—those can all be [traced] back to concussions,” says WVU Athletic Trainer Randy Meador. “You can’t find a hotter topic right now in sports medicine.”
Some critics say that professional and college football teams need to do more to protect their players from such repeated concussions and the prospect of severe brain damage. For instance when a player is acting strangely or having difficulty walking, he should be removed from the game. No player should be allowed to play again until he is symptom-free and cleared by the medical staff, says Tim Foley, who played football at Frostburg State University in Maryland and has had at least five documented concussions.
A concussion occurs when the head is jostled or hit severely enough to cause the brain to swell inside the skull.
The problem is diagnosing a concussion when it occurs. Many players, encouraged by their coaches to tough it out and get back into the game, won’t admit they are experiencing difficulties.
“You’re taught to be tough to play,” Foley says. “So when you get a concussion you don’t even want to tell the coach.”
If the players themselves won’t acknowledge having problems, even trained medical personnel have difficulty diagnosing concussions.
“I can’t see if a player has a headache or blurred vision,” Meador says. “Many times a player will have a minor head injury and continue playing and risk further injury.”
Meador says coaches and medical personnel have to do a better job of diagnosing concussions among players even when they won’t talk about it. Coaches need to make it crystal clear to their players how significant these injuries can be and that players will be penalized if they don’t speak up about even minor concussions. Currently, football players tend to be rewarded for being tough and aggressive on the field even when they are injured.
Foley believes that teaching proper tackling techniques to players can help prevent many injuries. Just padding helmets won’t help. According to John Spiker, who’s been an athletic trainer for the WVU football program for 35 years, it’s the abrupt stop from the impact of a hit that causes the damage to the brain.
“It’s not the head hitting against the helmet that’s causing the injury, it’s the cranium bouncing off the skull inside the head,” Spiker says.