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Football and traumatic brain injuries, part 1: the issue of CTE

The Chargers still have an outside shot at making the playoffs this year. But the teams' diehard fans are well aware that it's been nearly 19 years since the team made its only Super Bowl appearance.

That game was almost two decades ago - long enough to mark a sea change in state of the knowledge of the effects of brain injuries, both immediately and in the longer term.

No longer are players expected to mindlessly play through the pain after getting their "bells rung" by a hit to the head. Such hits tend to be penalized severely now, and the National Football League has developed a protocol to address concussion symptoms.

In this two-part post, we will discuss some of the research that is casting light on the issue of brain injuries among football players. The growing awareness of these injuries also helps to illuminate the problems of people who suffer brain injuries in other ways, such as in car accidents or through other types of personal injuries.

Across the continent from San Diego, at Boston University School of Medicine, there is now a Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. As a result of research there and elsewhere, many football fans are learning a new term: CTE.

CTE is the abbreviation for chronic repetitive encephalopathy. It is a degenerative brain disease, resulting in dementia and other symptoms, linked to the frequent blows to the head that football players suffer despite – or perhaps in part because of – the hard plastic helmets they wear.

Of course, helmets haven’t always been constructed that way. They were originally made of leather, and football players were known as “leatherheads,” a term briefly revived as the title of a George Clooney movie a few years ago.

Nationally, former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett is one of a number of former players who have said they have CTE.

Here in San Diego, there is also the tragic case of former Chargers’ star Junior Seau, whose suicide in May 2012 was later shown to have been linked to CTE.

We will discuss these issues further in part two of this post.

Source: The New York Times, "New Tests for Brain Trauma Create Hope and Skepticism," Ken Belson, Dec. 25, 2013

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