The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lead to catastrophic head injuries for thousands of American soldiers. In many cases, the injuries are closed head injuries that are the result of concussive events. Often these kinds of injuries show no visible wounds but have a severe impact on the service member’s brain. Roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have certainly killed thousands of brave American soldiers but many have survived such attacks only to be faced with the ongoing challenges of migraine headaches, personality changes, cognitive problems and other side effects of such brain injuries. In part, the wars have made the term traumatic brain injury (TBI) part of the cultural vernacular. In what can be described as a tragic coincidence, the connection between sports-related concussions and long-term brain damage has also become a topic of great debate during these war years. This is in part a result of the 2012 NFL Players’ Association lawsuit that alleges the NFL did not inform players well enough of the risks involved in playing the game. While defending the nation’s freedoms and playing a sport for a living have few similarities, injuries in both sub-cultures have brought attention to an important issue. Traumatic brain injuries impact many people who are neither soldiers nor professional athletes. Research into the subject by the military and the NFL may lead to medical breakthroughs that benefit many civilians and non-athletes.
The Department of Defense recently announced that they would develop a brain tissue bank to study the underlying causes and consequences of TBIs in service members diagnosed with such injuries. In the press release that includes the announcement, Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, is quoted as saying ” ‘The military health care system is bringing all the resources it can to better understand how to prevent, diagnose and treat traumatic brain injuries and to ensure that service members have productive and long, quality lives.’ ” He goes on to say that the research they are conducting will “have benefits to the American public at large.” Much of their efforts will be focused on a better understanding of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which often is associated with TBI.
CTE often leads to personality changes and cognitive dysfunctions. Many soldiers and football players have been diagnosed with CTE. There is a growing consensus in the medical field that repeated concussions increase the risks of the disorder. However, little is known about how, exactly, it develops and how much head trauma is a requisite for symptoms to develop. The new military research may lead to an increased understanding for the service but may also help prevent injuries in elite athletes as well. But the latest scrutiny on this issue benefits millions of other people as well.
Whether at the Pop Warner, high school, college or professional level, football is dangerous and high-speed collisions are a part of the game. Head injuries have been blamed for several deaths and catastrophic injuries to amateur athletes in recent years. San Diego media reports that Scott Eveland, a linebacker at a high school in San Diego County, collapsed on the sideline during a game in September of 2007. After being rushed to the hospital and having a portion of his skull removed to alleviate swelling caused by bleeding from his brain, he survived but is seriously disabled. His parents accepted a settlement for 4.3 million dollars. Though the cause of this tragedy was linked to a concussion he suffered during practice and then aggravated during the game, the school was not found liable. There are many other cases in which young athletes are permanently disabled or pass away as a result of head injuries.
And it’s not just football players: soccer players, cheerleaders, baseball and basketball players at the high school level often sustain concussions that can lead to major complications. NPR reports that more than 60, 000 high school athletes suffer concussions each year. Some of these will certainly lead to major medical challenges. If an athlete continues to compete throughout high school, into college and beyond, there is a likelihood that more head trauma will occur and, for some victims, CTE, or worse, may result. The new attention on these injuries cannot help but increase awareness which may lead to more prevention.
Of course, who is responsible for preventing sports injuries and keeping American soldiers out of harm’s way are questions that have still not been settled. As children, teens and young adults are injured on the field and in the gym, it is only a matter of time before new lawsuits arise after a tragedy. But with increased attention paid to this topic by the NFL, the Department of Defense and the American public at large, there may be more ideas emerging soon for how to prevent these injuries. For soldiers, athletes and for people suffering head injuries in car accidents, bicycle crashes and other catastrophes, the research and attention on the subject is a step in the right direction.