A Brain Going Rogue

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Contact sports draw spectators from children to elderly. While some find this entertaining, it is not without risks and potentially high personal costs.  Many athletes in contact sports, such as football, hockey and soccer suffer repeated and often severe blows to the head resulting in a concussion and injury to the brain.   Some of these injuries are overlooked and underestimated allowing the athlete to continue participation in the sport. With brain injury the symptoms may be subtle and appear over the course of time, increasing with repeated blows to the head. Over time, the athlete’s injuries may require medication for pain control. There is a well known risk of addiction to these types of medications. With all this being said, should an athlete become addicted to a pain med, it can mask other underlying issues or behaviors.

Take the case of Derek Boogard, who played for the Minnesota Wild Hockey team. Derek experienced numerous head blows, concussions and injuries requiring pain control with an addictive pain med. He was recognized as a hockey player who was often involved in brawls on the ice. He became addicted to pain medication and began his downward spiral of his career, his personality and his life. Derek was obtaining his pain meds from team physicians at high frequencies and taking up to 8 pills at a time. Interesting is that no one was questioning the possibility of brain injury as the cause of his chronic headaches until his team finally saw what was going on with him and the changes that had occurred in this young athlete. He was in and out of drug rehab facilities over a long period of time. He continued to play hockey and was in high demand and was signed up for a large contract to another team. Many of his teammates and friends began to see changes in hi s behavior and mood. Because of his pain med addiction history, it was always blamed on that and rightfully so.  Some of the behavior changes noted in his case were:

  • Decline in performance in a game
  • Faded work ethic
  • Slow or no response to the physical fighting on the ice, or an indifference
  • Headaches
  • Emotional ups and downs, sobbing
  • Depression
  • Staying in his apartment, blinds closed for days
  • No appetite
  • Loneliness from loss of playing the game and losing popularity among peers
  • Desperation for social company
  • Manic behavior, excessive spending and grand ideas
  • Poor hygiene, not showering
  • Memory lapses
  • Darkened personality

Eventually and sadly, Derek lost his life and passed on at the age of 28 from an overdose on painkillers and alcohol. His family was devastated, yet feared this would someday happen. As with any tragic death, his family wanted to know more.

Approached by a research team to have his brain donated to an ongoing study, Derek’s family agreed to do so with the hope that they could learn what caused his death. By doing this, they learned their son was not only addicted to pain killers, he also had a brain so injured from the repeated blows to the head, and it was labeled as severe and widespread brain damage. The actual diagnosis is known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. This is only able to be diagnosed after death by examination of the brain. Many of the NFL players who have died over recent years have received the same diagnosis and experienced the changes and decline in function like the problems which affected Derek Boogard.

The brain is a very complex and important organ and should be protected especially in any contact sport.  When exposed to repeated hard blows to the head, paying attention to behavior changes and seeking medical attention could ward off further deterioration, long term injuries, or even death. Bottom line is we  need to pay closer attention to brain injury in athletes, because we are seeing far too many brain injuries that could have been addressed with earlier interventions and precautionary measures.

Click here to read the New York Times article on ‘A Brain Going Bad’

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