Stroke can hit athletes

Stroke is defined as a condition resulting from a lack of blood supply to an area of the brain. It is typically associated with elderly patients who have weakened or hardened blood vessels. That’s why so many people were shocked when in February 2005, 31-year-old NFL linebacker Tedy Bruschi was suddenly stricken with a stroke.

At this year’s American Academy of Neurology meeting, Bruschi received the Public Leadership Award for his work in the field of stroke awareness. The story of how his stroke evolved and his recovery is an important lesson.

He awakened on the morning of February 15, two days after playing in the Pro Bowl, with numbness and weakness of his left arm and leg. He described a severe headache with an inability to see objects on his left side. While he was inclined to ignore his symptoms, his wife called her father, a physician’s assistant, who advised them to get to a hospital. An MRI showed that he’d suffered a stroke in the back of the right side of his brain.

An ultrasound of Bruschi’s heart showed that he had a hole between the upper chambers of his heart known as a patent foramen ovale. This condition allowed free passage of a small clot from the right side of his heart to his brain, resulting in stroke. Placing a patch over the hole through a catheter sealed the hole. Unfortunately, he was left with left-sided weakness and visual loss.

Three months of intense physical therapy followed. He worked with therapists specially trained in rehabilitation of neurological disorders. During that time, Bruschi had to summon all of the toughness and drive he had acquired from his years of competitive sports.

By late spring, the cause of his stroke was treated and he had regained sufficient physical function to transition from rehabilitation to actual football workouts. Bruschi’s comeback culminated with a return to the NFL on October 15, 2005.

Tedy Bruschi’s story shows us that the combination of modern medical care, a strong will, and hard work can overcome the obstacle of a stroke. Even to the point of returning to the highest level of sports.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital and in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC, in Norwich. E-mail him at If you wish to learn more about this column or other sports health topics – listen to the podcast or go to the Healthy Sports blog at Backus Hospital.

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