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The Prevalence of Concussions, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, and Brain Injuries in the NFL

With the 2022 Superbowl right around the corner, now is a perfect opportunity to highlight what a lifetime of playing football does to the human brain. Although physical injuries are common in contact sports, football is notorious for having the highest amounts of mental/brain injuries.

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During every minute of the game, people are colliding headfirst, at full speed, into one another. One would think that repeated collision of a person’s head must lead to some form of brain injury? Yet, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the first former NFL player was diagnosed with CTE, almost 80 years after the foundation of the NFL.

What is CTE?

CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a term to describe brain degeneration from repeated head traumas. After the first former NFL player was diagnosed with CTE, the medical community began researching more about this topic. The only way to diagnose CTE fully is through autopsy thus significantly hindering medical professionals’ understanding of the condition as they can only study select individuals. In 2017, Boston University conducted a study of 111 deceased former NFL players’ brains to figure out what playing football does to a person. They found that 110 out of the 111 (99%) players had CTE.

Since CTE stems from repeated head trauma, this poses the question of just how prevalent brain injuries are?

So, what has the NFL done about it?

After countless CTE studies arose, the NFL put approximately $2 Billion in total towards CTE research and engineering, as well as two settlements: one for players with head injuries, and the other for retired players. They even changed the rules of the game to allow for severe penalties, fines, and even suspension for flagrant helmet-to-helmet hits. Yet at the end of the day, the NFL has found no way to effectively prevent concussions and brain injuries. 

Concussion Season

Since 2012 the total number of diagnosed concussions each season (pre-season and regular) has been tracked. On average, 17% of all players sustain concussions each season. There are around 0.41 concussions per NFL game. 68% of concussions result from the impact of another player’s helmet, 21% result from impact from other body regions (like knees, shoulders, etc.), and 11% result from impact from the ground.

Concussions each year in the NFL from 2012 to 2019

With all these concussions players should take weeks if not months to fully recover before resuming activity. However, that is sadly not what happens. 92% of players who have sustained concussions return to play in less than 7 days. That is an incredible statistic. On average, most people recover from concussions 2-4 weeks after the incident. So, NFL players coming back as soon as 3 or 4 days is a severe problem. All this evidence has proven that repeated head collisions lead to CTE.

Why talk about CTE?

The reason CTE is brought up is because of just how dangerous it really is. In simple terms, it is over time the alteration of one’s brain completely. It takes about 8 to 10 years after initial repeated brain traumas for CTE to fully manifest and from there it only progresses. This means that kids who start playing tackle football by the age of 8 can exhibit symptoms before they are even done with puberty.

Stages of CTE

CTE has a defined 4 stage categorization. Stage 1 consists of early onset of symptoms that can often be missed because they are similar attributes of many athletes such as always being tired, a lack of attention, and headaches at times. Stage 2 gets more severe, as individuals find themselves suffering from depression, mood swings, explosivity, and short-term memory loss on top of the symptoms present in Stage 1. Stage 3 adds suicidal thoughts, apathy problems, visuospatial difficulties, impulsivity, and aggression to the ongoing list of symptoms. The most severe stage of CTE is Stage 4. Individuals suffer from severe memory loss which leads to dementia and executive dysfunction. Less common symptoms include Parkinsonism (a combination of the movement abnormalities in Parkinson’s disease) and dysarthria (causes slurred or slowed speech due to lack of control from the muscles an individual uses to speak). Eventually, CTE can lead to the total loss of self-function for an individual.  

Photo detailing what the brain looks like at each stage of CTE.

A Human Study

A perfect example of an NFL player still playing in today’s game that is believed to be suffering from CTE is Antonio Brown. Labeled as one of the generation’s greatest wide receivers he was putting up impressive numbers to live up to the title. However, during the 2015 NFL season, Antonio Brown suffered a massive blindside hit to his head by another player.

   

Photos detailing the hit on Antonio Brown and the aftermath.

Ever since that hit, it has been extremely apparent that one of the best wide receivers was not himself anymore. From his mannerisms on and off the field, it was evident that his brain was changed. Aggressive outbursts, compulsive lying, irrational behavior, depression, mood swings, and impulsivity became synonymous with Antonio Brown. Earlier this 2021-2022 NFL season, Antonio Brown during the middle of the game took off his clothes and ran to the locker room. After that game, he was let go from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is currently a free agent.

Photo of Antonio Brown quitting mid-game.

 The evidence is right in front of everybody. Football can be a dangerous sport. However, with new rules and regulations, it is slowly but surely becoming a safer sport. Although the game is loved by millions, parents and individuals should warn children of starting the game before puberty and the long-term side effects of playing this sport.

Meet Sallie®

If you or someone you know has sustained concussions or severe TBIs, then you understand how overwhelming the symptoms can become. Sallie® aims to ease this feeling, by being an incredibly easy to use, and free, TBI symptom-tracking dashboard. Using the dashboard at the beginning of one’s recovery can help them to identify symptoms and triggers. The robust data collection approach includes a multitude of varying symptoms for our users to track. Whether you are or have played football all your life or are an individual with head trauma, using Sallie® for your TBIs can lead to a better recovery. 

Register for Sallie® here.

 

References: 

Ward, Joe, et al. “111 N.F.L. Brains. All but One Had C.T.E.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 July 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/07/25/sports/football/nfl-cte.html?mtrref=undefined&gwh=AAC95C9CE119CE4FEC6B757D35911430&gwt=pay&assetType=PAYWALL.

Ortiz, Aimee. “Learn the Symptoms in the Four Stages of CTE - The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com, The Boston Globe, 21 Sept. 2017, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/09/21/symptoms-watch-for-four-stages-cte/Q1wniQOnQXH1bU8OibU3WJ/story.html.

Resnick, Brian. “What a Lifetime of Playing Football Can Do to the Human Brain.” Vox, Vox, 2 Feb. 2018, https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/2/2/16956440/super-bowl-2020-concussion-symptoms-cte-football-nfl-brain-damage-youth.

Cohen, Arianne. “Football and Concussions: How Safe Is the Super Bowl for Players' Brains?” Fast Company, Fast Company, 5 Feb. 2021, https://www.fastcompany.com/90601025/football-and-concussions-how-safe-is-the-super-bowl-for-players-brains.