Last week the NFL announced their Head Health Initiative, a 4 year $60 million dollar collaboration to improve diagnosis and recovery from potential head injuries. $40 million dollars will go towards developing imaging technology to better detect trauma in head injuries and $20 million will be devoted to the study of concussions including understanding, diagnosing, and treating them.
This dedication of resources comes on the heels of more than 3,800 former and current NFL players filing lawsuits against the NFL over head injuries.Fellow blogger Josh, has written about this topic before, and has several recommendations for how the NFL could improve care of it’s athletes. One of the most high profile is that of the family of Junior Seau. Seau died last year of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) posthumously. Lawyers argue that a 20 year career of hard hits and repeated concussions lead to progressive degeneration of Seau’s brain contributing to his depression.
There is some evidence that repeated hard hits in many sports can lead to serious problems. The New York Times wrote a three part article on the life and demise of Derek Boogaard, a well-known hockey enforcer known for his proclivity for fighting. In addition to athletes, many military personnel are afflicted with CTE after exposure to explosions. While it seems that strong impacts can cause detrimental long term symptoms, increased rates of mental illness can also be found in baseball players who experience very little impact (also previously addressed by fellow blogger Josh). So while we can guess that physical harm can contribute to eventual mental illness the links are far from clear cut.
So far, it has been very difficult to track these brain injuries because they don’t show up on CT scans or MRIs which are commonly performed on patients with a potential head injury. The only way to track these injuries is by observing other symptoms that might occur after this type of trauma and this is really difficult to do consistently. These new tools could help us to differentiate why some professional athletes in lower impact sports are also experiencing an increase in long term mental illness and suicide.
The NFL is making a good faith effort to address this devastating potential side effect of playing a rough and tumble game. Hopefully this infusion of funding will lead to information that will be useful for not just football players but all people exposed to a potential head injury and even those who haven’t.