Cavaliers’ Love shines light on panic attacks

In a recent article published online in “The Players’ Tribune,” Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, discussed his ongoing battle with panic attacks. Although the condition is not rare, anytime a professional athlete admits to a mental health condition it becomes noteworthy.

A panic attack is an episode of intense fear when no apparent danger is present. The person feels a sense of impending doom and loss of control. This triggers a reaction with symptoms that can include: a rapid, pounding heart rate, sweating, trembling, difficulty breathing, nausea, chest pain and numbness. There is often a feeling of unreality or detachment.

This cascade of symptoms is also known as the “fight or flight response.” This is a primitive response designed to protect a person when threatened by an attacker. This complex reaction begins in the brain where the amygdala and hypothalamus respond involuntarily to a situation. This occurs without conscious input of judgment provided by the frontal lobes.

These structures in the brain then send signals to the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline that in turn causes the physiologic response described.

Successful athletes are able to trigger this response to their advantage and as a result can improve performance. In the case of Love, his false perception of danger has caused episodes where he temporarily cannot function at a high level.

“Current treatments include medications and behavioral interventions designed to identify and reduce the symptoms. One of the best treatments, in the short term, is an anti-anxiety medication,” reports Dr. Caleb Peck, a Norwich neuropsychologist and Director of Clarus Health Alliance. “The best treatment outcome comes from pairing medication with individual psychotherapy.”

Love’s admission of a mental health condition, coupled with his level of fame, will hopefully lead to other athletes seeking care.

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at

Studies reveal risks for spinal injuries

Among the most terrifying injuries in sports is when an athlete becomes paralyzed after a collision or fall. If the impact is focused on the cervical spine, the result is a temporary or permanent paralysis of all extremities. This pattern of paralysis is referred to as quadriplegia. Identifying athletes who may be susceptible to this type of injury can be lifesaving.

The cervical spine consists of seven bony vertebrae that surround and protect the spinal cord.

Cartilaginous discs that cushion and protect the bones from friction and impact separate the vertebrae. The individual vertebral segments are connected by a series of ligaments giving this portion of the spine flexibility to allow a certain degree of bending and twisting.

The cervical spinal cord is located in a central canal. The spinal cord at this level contains a network of motor and sensory nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain. The higher levels also coordinate essential functions such as respiration, temperature and cardiac function.

The most common injury is known as neurapraxia of the cervical spinal cord. This is best described as transient numbness, tingling and/or weakness of the extremities after cervical cord injury. It typically occurs with hyperextension, flexion or axial loading of the spine. Episodes last anywhere from 15 minutes to 36 hours. Axial loading injuries are common in football when tackling with the head down.

Subsequent radiologic studies often reveal congenital narrowing of the cervical canal causing these athletes to be vulnerable to this type of injury.

“Initial treatment for congenital cervical stenosis is often observation,” reports Dr. Isaac Moss, Associate Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Neurosurgery at the University of Connecticut. “However, if patients become symptomatic, surgical treatment is an option. This is often in the form of a procedure called laminoplasty, which involves increasing the space available for the spinal cord within the spinal canal.”

A thorough neurologic evaluation for episodes of weakness and numbness in athletes can avoid catastrophe.

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at