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BLOG #12: What Retired Professional Football Players are Learning about Brain Health

“I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late.”
Chris Borland, 49er, retiring after one season

Chris Borland is not alone. Researchers at 538 wrote that “A national survey from 2015 found that 25 percent of parents do not let their kids play contact sports due to fear of concussions, while an Aspen Institute report recently found that participation in tackle football declined by 12 percent among children ages 6 to 12 between 2016 and 2017.”

Over 25,000 men have played in the NFL since 1920. According to Forbes, 26 of the 32 NFL teams rank among the Top 50 most valuable sports teams in the world, and 16 of the NFL’s owners are listed on the Forbes 400. Yet thousands of retired players are without the means to care for their health and admitted brain damage caused by repetitive blows to the head.

Controversy continues across the medical community about whether brain injuries can be treated beyond “watchful waiting,” rest, “graduated return to play,” or the benefits of exercise soon after injury. There is also disagreement about the role of playing football and the onset of severe brain damage called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). There is broad agreement now that CTE is a brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head. It is also associated with the development of dementia. Potential signs of CTE are problems with thinking and memory, personality changes, and behavioral changes including aggression, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

In what some consider a landmark decision in August 2013, the NFL has reached a $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries among its retired players, agreeing to compensate victims, pay for medical exams and underwrite research. Members of Congress likened the litigation and the settlement to the cigarette-causes-cancer debates over decades. The NFL settled fairly quickly, avoiding the “discovery” phase that would have probed “what they knew and when they knew it.” Lawyers for the players alleged that the NFL led a deliberate misinformation campaign — primarily through its Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee — to deny scientific data about concussion risks. The movie CONCUSSION with Will Smith was based on a much deeper look at all this, the book and Frontline documentary “League of Denial.”

Similarly, the NCAA is the target of hundreds of lawsuits claiming the NCAA was responsible for damages from players diagnosed in life or death with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other neurodegenerative disorders. A previous concussion case against the NCAA resulted in a $75 million settlement. The NCAA agreed to pay $70 million toward medical monitoring for former college athletes, another $5 million toward medical research and payments of up to $5,000 toward individual players who claimed injuries. Importantly, the settlement included an agreement that a large personal injury class-action lawsuit could not be brought against the NCAA; individual lawsuits were permitted on a per school basis.

Central to the lawsuits are questions of “Do repetitive hits to the head cause concussion, and do concussions lead to brain injury and neurodegenerative disorders?” It is fairly well established in the settlements from the NFL and the NCAA that something bad has happened to some players. Of course, in both law and medicine, there is a naturally occurring reversion to “science” and the lack of certainty about the causes and consequences of brain injuries suffered while engaging in activities that, by now, are well known by players, coaches, parents, doctors and the general public to open the players up to the risks of brain injury. Of course, as long as the question of “Who should pay the price?” is not settled, it will inevitably be the injured players who will suffer and be forced to petition for compensation.

But what can money buy, not matter who pays? A multimillion dollar concussion monitoring program was put in place just this year. Not treatment, just monitoring. The NCAA-DOD Concussion Assessment, Research and Education Consortium (CARE Consortium) was established as part of the broader NCAA-DOD Grand Alliance in 2014 with the goals of understanding how concussions impact the brain and identifying ways to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention. In hundreds of “Centers of Excellence” in hospitals and clinics across the US, research continues into causes, descriptions, diagnosis, treatment, care and rehabilitation of brain injuries. Terms like ” Rehabilomics®” cast a wide net to find biomarkers and “to understand rehabilitation-relevant mechanisms of injury, secondary complications and disease and how they impact function, prognosis and recovery for people with disabilities.” And, of course, there’s an industry in rehabilitation and insured symptom-reduction and log-term care.

Improvements to Concussion Protocols in the NCAA and the NFL include getting a sign-off from the Chief Medical Officer of the school, and added binocular-enabled spotters to bolster the already abundant emphasis on noticing and dealing with potential concussions. That blue tent on the sideline is part of the improved Concussion Protocol.

What are we to make of all this? And what are retired players making of it in practical terms? Well, they’ve endured brain scans, and counseling, and tricks and tips for coping with the obvious degeneration of their functional, behavioral, cognitive, physical, emotional, medical and social skills. Along with their wives and thousands of their brethren and hundreds of thousands of veterans and millions of citizens, they are the continuing victims of a culture of silence around alternative treatments that can help heal and reverse some of the ravages of brain injury. Instead of medical intervention to treat the brain wound, they are being “treated” for symptoms. The physical damage is allowed to continue.

To deny the brain injured knowledge about alternative, functional medicine treatments violates medical ethics and leaves colleges and team owners open to charges that they have been negligent in denying paid treatment for injuries that can be helped to heal. Just think: They’ll spend scads of money to rebuild broken legs and shoulders, but they won’t put money into fixing brains? What kind of sense does that make? Ask the badly concussed quarterbacks how much knowledge and help they’ve been given with healing their brains.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is one such alternative treatment. Worldwide scientific research and hundreds of peer-reviewed articles, including the Government’s own multimillion dollar studies, supports the case for immediate use of HBOT to intervene in the deterioration of brains and decrease in the Quality of Life across society. Seven state legislatures [OK, TX, IN, KY, AZ, FL and NC have passed legislation to make HBOT available to veterans.] Congress has just sent legislation to the President, calling on the VA to expand its own successful investigations into the use of HBOT for TBI/PTSD/Concussion.

The gargantuan financial costs of not treating and healing brain wounds will be explored here on Veterans Day. For now, let a few of the lucky ones speak for themselves. There are over 7,500 success stories like these. See: Veterans and citizens working pro bono are standing by to help.

Their own story:


Next in BLOG #13: Where Can You Get a Good Diagnosis for Brain Injury, and what does a REAL treatment for brain injury entail?
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