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Long-Term effect of concussions

by Billy Braker

On April 22, 2015 the National Football League, reached their final settlement, 3½ years after more than 5,000 retired NFL players filed more than 200 lawsuits to the federal court seeking damages due to the undiagnosed concussions, and life altering injuries, they received during their career. Not to mention, the life altering effects they experienced as a result of playing the NFL.

Concussions have long been a problem for NFL players, but only recently have the true effects come into perspective. What is a concussion? What causes them?  And what are the long lasting effects of concussions?

The story of NFL caring about player safety and concussions as a whole begins with Mike Webster. Mike Webster was a 6’2” and 255 pounds, center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a 1997 Hall of Fame inductee, and considered a “beast” to a majority of football fans. He holds the record in Steeler history of playing in 15 seasons, which is the equivalent to 220 games. His story is not one of happiness and prosperity, but one of sadness and gloom. One would anticipate that after a long successful NFL career, the rest of your life would be a breeze, but Webster’s was practically the opposite. His Hall of Fame pro football career was followed by more than a decade of physical and psychological turmoil, years of homelessness, overdose of drugs, all leading to his fatal death of a heart attack at age 50 on Sept. 24, 2002.   

Growing up in Nigeria, Dr. Bennet Omalu knew close to nothing about American football. He didn’t watch the games and he certainly didn’t know of the name Mike Webster. That changed in 2002 when Omalu was assigned to perform an autopsy on the legendary Steelers center. Webster had died at the age of 50, but to Omalu, he looked far older. Football had taken a punishing toll on his body. As a neuropathologist, Omalu found a startling discovery about Mike Webster’s brain: a disease never previously identified in football players. The condition, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, was the first hard evidence that playing football could cause permanent brain damage. Players with CTE have battled depression, memory loss, and in some cases, dementia.

Doctors define a concussion as a type of traumatic brain injury—or TBI—caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth. This sudden movement can cause the brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, stretching and damaging the brain cells, creating chemical changes in the brain. They say that most concussions  should completely resolve within one to six weeks, depending on the severity. Some people, however, experience post-concussion symptoms lasting longer than this. Post-concussion syndrome can include physical, cognitive, and emotional problems, including headache, dizziness, difficulty concentrating or completing tasks, irritability, and the sense that you “just don’t feel like yourself.”

All of these symptoms can make daily life more difficult, both in personal relationships and at work or school. Over time, and especially with treatment, these symptoms will get better. Long-term effects of concussions cause individuals to experience more severe problems with attention and short-term memory, have difficulty performing daily tasks, and report feeling slower overall.  Difficulty making decisions or processing a lot of information, or trouble resolving problems, can have a significant impact on one’s life. It is important to know that — even years after an injury — these symptoms can get better, especially with treatment from a professional with expertise in brain injury.