With the recent suicide of future NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau, people seem to be asking a lot of questions such as: Why did this happen? How could no one have seen this coming? Who is next? And how do we prevent this from happening again? All good questions, though in a world where knowledge is power, maybe a better question is: Who can players, parents, coaches, and doctors turn to get an unbiased, objective analysis of brain injuries? Enter CereScan's Brain Injury Center of Excellence in Denver, CO; a functional brain imaging company who is nationally recognized for helping people from all over the world, with an unmatched level of diagnostics and care for their brain injuries.
In recent years, more and more has been written about concussions and athletes and the fact that head injuries on the field are a national crisis. It is estimated that upwards of 4 million athletes are affected by concussions in the United States every year. These concussions are often "invisible" as they have been seldom reported and therefore poorly treated and under addressed. However, in the past few years more and more is being shared by athletes, families and medical professionals about the long term effects of concussions. CereScan has seen athletes from all levels of competition fly in from around the country to have their brain injuries assessed. "Cutting edge technology has developed so far in recent years for the evaluation of brain injuries, and we are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of athletes who want to know what kind of lasting effects their playing careers will have on their lives," says John Kelley, CEO of CereScan. From contact sports like football, hockey,a nd rugby, to less contact athletic competition like snow skiing and cheerleading, CereScan is helping people gain a better understanding of what they are facing in the future. We are now hearing stories of early memory loss, confusion, cognitive difficulties and depression. In football players in particular, there are the additional serious effects of repeated concussions. In these cases we also see increased divorce rates, significant financial struggles, difficulty sustaining attention, addiction and significant mood instability and irritability. Jeb Putzier, a former player for seven seasons with the Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, and Seattle Seahawks, has first-hand knowledge of how the hits football players take can affect their lives. "It is scary. While you are playing there is such a culture of 'playing through the pain' for your teammates that you very rarely stop to think about how it may affect you in 10-20 years, let alone the rest of your life."
The American Journal of Sports Medicine reported in 2008 that once a concussion has occurred, a player is more susceptible to getting subsequent brain injuries. Additionally, it stated that after three diagnosed concussions an athlete's risk of sustaining another has increased by three times. In 2009, the NFL completed a Study of Retired NFL Players with the help from the University of Michigan where football players were reported to have 19 times the risk of getting dementia than the national average and the risk of depression increases with the number of concussions a player has experienced. Since the news of Junior Seau's death, the media has been bombarded with arguments on both sides of the concussion fence. In one recent ESPN blog, Ted Miller highlighted that doctors at the Fiesta Bowl Summit discussed that they have "promising" data from studies that nearly ninety percent of athletes achieved full clinical recovery after reported concussions. Although apparently one of the points was to highlight that trainers should be patient in returning the athletes back to the field, those of us in the medical and mental health fields are concerned that this message doesn't address the issue of multiple head injuries. One of the leading physicians in the nation on brain injury, Dr. Gregory Hipskind, MD, PhD, of Red Bud Regional Hospital in Waterloo, IL, is seeing an increasing number of athletes from all levels of competition in his pracitice. "It is a common notion that a brain injury results solely in thinking or memory problems," says Dr. Hipskind, "However the brain also controls psychological and emotional regulations, and this has been scientifically proven."
There currently is not one accepted definition of concussion, one definitive way of diagnosing a concussion, nor one consensus on how to deal with this crisis. However, there are some things that we do know. We do know that repeated injury to the brain causes toxic levels of glutamate to be released, which simply put, can lead to chronic brain inflammation. These levels of glutamate can cause severe and chronic depression which may lead to addictions, and in some tragic cases, suicide. Because concussion injury is often found in the frontal lobe area of the brain, where impulse control is housed, a person who is depressed, paired with the inability to control impulsive thoughts and behaviors, is at significantly higher risk for self-harm. We also know that there are neuroimaging technologies available that can shed some light on what is happening inside the brain. A CT (Computed Tomography) scan can demonstrate fractures and hemorrhaging in the brain, MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is able to show contusions, white matter lesions and axonal injury and SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) is able to show lesions of dysfunction within the brain that correlate with reported symptoms. Dr. Hipskind also mentions, "Though many concussions are also labeled as 'mild traumatic brain injury', we know from their progressive nature that they are anything if not serious in every instance. Researchers have concluded that up to 15% of all 'mild traumatic brain injuries' will have permanent damage."
Experts all agree that the "concussion" issue isn't going to just go away. While there have been advances in diagnostic medicine seeming to provide some clues as to how athletes and their families can address this issue, it does little for the Seau family who has unfortunately begun the grieving process. Players, coaches, doctors, and families are certainly taking notice, which is a good thing. Mr. Putzier, who consulted with CereScan to get a better understanding of what kind of permanent damage he may be left with from his playing days, mentions, "I played against Junior Seau, and have always appreciated how he carried himself on and off of the field. I only wish he had reached out and gotten help." He continues, "For me, now knowing how my brain has changed from taking the hits I took from playing football has given my wife and me a plan for the future. I just hope others do the same, before it is too late."
Dr. Sheryl Gonzalez-Ziegler
Dr. Ziegler is the founder and managing director of The Child & Family Therapy Center at Lowry. She is a Counseling Psychologist and Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Colorado. Dr. Ziegler is a member of the Colorado Association for Play Therapy, American Psychological Association and started the Spousal Forum for the Colorado chapter of Entrepreneur Organization (EO). She is also a consultant to CereScan.