Was this Football Tragedy Preventable?

2011/06/06
By Deirdre

Football helmet of the late Owen Thomas; House Committee on Education via Flickr

In April of the past year, Penn State football player, Owen Thomas committed suicide in his bedroom flat. The captain’s death was a shock to everyone including doctors who had looked at his brain after his death. The doctors were worried to see signs of early Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease which has side effects similar to Alzheimer’s disease, but unlike Alzheimer’s, CTE is caused by repeated brain trauma. CTE symptoms include: headaches, dizziness, lack of insight, and poor judgment. CTE is caused by repeated concussions or blows to the head with incredible force. Research has not proven exactly how many concussions it takes for a person to get CTE, but researchers are getting closer. They have discovered that there are usually three stages when it comes to detecting CTE. The first stage includes psychotic problems. This branches off into stage two, where the individual may experience social difficulties, erratic behavior, memory loss, and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The final stage happens when the brain is thoroughly affected by deterioration. Affects of stage three include more speech problems, worsening Parkinson’s symptoms, trouble swallowing, and drooping eyelids.  As you can see, CTE affects not only your body but also affects your psychotic well being. The effect of psychotic troubles can lead to sudden depression. Researchers on Owen Thomas’s case say that family members and friends had seen evident changes in the mood of Owen Thomas before he died. He had started giving up on school work and the intensity his personality had started declining. CTE was definitely a main factor in the suicide of Owen Thomas. Dr. Daniel Perl reviewed slides of Thomas’s brain tissue, and this confirmed the diagnosis of CTE.

Brain damage that causes CTE happens when an object is struck violently to the head, but does not break the skull. Although the object does not break the bone, the brain smashes into the side of your skull. This causes deterioration to different parts of the brain. As occurrences like these happen over and over, they lead to many problems, as described in the paragraph above.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a gradual disease, so it is most likely not seen until it ends tragically, like in the case of Owen Thomas. To detect CTE you would most likely assess someone’s personality. Personality swings are hard to detect and could be caused by anything; so if someone has CTE it is hard to tell that CTE is causing these symptoms. CTE is at risk for athletes involved in football, boxing, wrestling, rugby, hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and skiing. To date there have been many sports related deaths involving CTE. These deaths include: 39 amateur and professional boxers, 5 football players, 1 professional wrestler, and 1 soccer player. You can have CTE without playing sports, but 90% of CTE problems are sports related.

So what is the solution to this problem? Maybe there should be routine checkups of athletes who have been affected by concussions and other head injuries. I’m not saying only professional and college level players, but also high school level sports. This disease should be more publicly known so problems related to this disease can be eliminated.

How can we make it possible for athletes at all levels to be checked for CTE? Does brain damage affect other members of the Primate family like it affects humans?

  • james craig

     I think that it would be a good idea for serious sport players to get checked for signs of CTE, especially the teenagers who play rougher sports where they might experience more blows to the head than other sports. 

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