The Lasting Effects of Repeated Concussions in Professional Sports

Game highlights, player press conferences, and of course the final score have long been the key ingredients of a well-told sports story. But in recent years, we’re seeing more media coverage about the personal lives of players, which includes the medical consequences that can take place after an injury. For example, when a player suffers any injury during a game, it’s common for the media to highlight early interventions, such as x-rays, surgeries, and rehabilitation. When it comes to blows to the head, sportscasters have historically focused on concussion testing and the steps required for athletes to return to the field. But rarely has the story continued from there.

But this is starting to change, with a “then what?” chapter being drafted more often — especially as it relates to the consequences of concussions over the long term.

Sports fans and athletes are learning more about the impact seemingly mild head injuries can have on players later in life. We’re seeing more and more evidence for a link between repeated concussions and a variety of devastating neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Increase in Lou Gehrig's Disease Diagnosis in Former NFL Players

There’s been increasing attention to a higher incidence of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in athletes. According to a 2012 study, ALS was four times higher in former NFL players than the general population. NFL veteran Tim Green announced in November he’s been diagnosed with the disease, and more than 40 players or representatives have filed ALS-related claims against the NFL.

ALS is caused by the death of motor neurons, a type of cell that coordinates movement. Symptoms of ALS can include walking difficulties, tripping and falling, leg and hand weakness, slurred speech, and trouble swallowing.

Another progressive degenerative neurological condition that’s received more press in recent years is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Symptoms of CTE can include aggression, depression, impulsivity, irritability, short-term memory loss, and heightened occurrences of suicide.

A common thread between CTE and ALS is the presence of a protein called tau, which is known to cause clumps in the brain that lead to cell death. These clumps are a telltale sign of CTE and have also been found in the brains of some former NFL players with ALS.

More Research Is Needed to Understand the Connection Between ALS and CTE

While there’s a probable connection between CTE and ALS, it remains unclear if CTE causes ALS. It’s important to note that correlation does not equal causation, however, which means not all athletes who suffer concussions will be diagnosed with ALS, nor is the disease limited to professional athletes.

There’s much to learn about the relationship between concussions and neurodegenerative diseases like ALS. Fortunately, research is underway and it should ultimately lead to better treatment and possibly even prevention. And that would be the best sports story ever told.