Learning the hard way about protecting the brains of athletes

Former boxing champion Emile Griffith recently passed away at the age of 75.  He died while living in a nursing facility where he required full personal care.  He suffered from dementia pugilistica.

Dr. Harrison Martland first described “dementia pugilistica “ (boxer’s dementia) in 1928 while working as a forensic pathologist in Newark, NJ.  He reported consistent changes in the brains of fighters on whom he had performed autopsies.

Now known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) this form of dementia is accompanied by disorders of movement similar to Parkinson’s disease as well as dramatic changes in personality.

CTE is not restricted to combat sports like boxing and MMA but is also seen in participants of high velocity collision sports like football and hockey.  Repeated blows to the head will alter the function of the complex network that allows for normal neurological function.

Neurologic research has now centered on trying to determine why some athletes will develop CTE and others will not.  Imaging studies of the brain and genetic testing have thus far failed to provide a reliable screening tool for athletes.

Studies have shown that young, developing brains are more vulnerable to traumatic injury from concussive blows. These injuries can result in chronic headaches and learning disabilities if they are not managed properly.

The most important approach to treatment is removing the athlete from an athletic contest to avoid further injury.  A period of rest that includes avoiding reading, computer work and texting allows the brain to recover.

On Aug.  8, Backus will host an educational session for parents, coaches and officials involved in youth sports events.  Anyone interested in participating should contact Backus Hospital at 860-889-8331, ext. 4211 for details. 

The single most effective way of dealing with this potentially disabling problem is through education.

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