Football fans were shocked this week when news came that Junior Seau, 43-year-old former Pro Bowl linebacker, had died of a suspected suicide on Wednesday morning.
It didn’t take long, however, for speculation to turn to the impact that concussions and brain injury can have later in life on those involved in contact sports. Could the thousands of violent collisions Seau experienced over the course of his 20-year career with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and New England Patriots have played a hand in his death?
While most people recover from concussions, a few experience persistent problems with memory or other neurological functions. Doctors believe individuals who experience severe or multiple concussions may be at a greater risk for neurologic disease and clinical depression later in life than the average person.
Players don't have to take obvious knockout blows to suffer damage, says Daniel Stein, MD, a Sarasota neurologist who heads Sarasota Memorial’s Concussion Program. Rather, everyday shots to the head in contact sports, repeated often enough, "repetitive sub-concussive injuries" in the jargon, can do the harm.
"These are relatively minor head injuries that cause a change in nerve function, we believe, that results in long-term brain problems,” he said.
Each year, approximately 10-15 percent of athletes who participate in contact sports suffer a concussion. While those who participate in football, basketball, soccer and cheerleading activities are particularly vulnerable, a number of people suffer concussions from every day activities, such as riding bikes, skateboarding or rollerblading.
Although most are not life threatening, concussions are complex neurological disorders that require a fast and accurate diagnosis. Signs and symptoms of a concussion can occur immediately; in some cases, however, they can take hours or days to appear. And even the mildest concussion can take a week or more to full recover from.
Last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed the Florida concussion law (HB 291), which requires that any player who shows signs of a concussion get clearance from a doctor before playing again. It covers high school and youth sports. “It's going to be a sea change in how these games are played,” Dr. Stein said.