Seau's suicide reignites discussion of traumatic brain injury and sports

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by Catherine Holland

azfamily.com

Posted on May 3, 2012 at 12:43 PM

Updated Thursday, May 3 at 1:01 PM

PHOENIX -- In the wake of former NFL linebacker Junior Seau's suicide, many people are wondering whether brain trauma and the long-term effects of multiple concussions sustained during his 20-season career played a role in his death.

Dr. Javier Cardenas from Barrow Neurological Institute sat down with 3TV's Scott Pasmore to discuss the issue.

"It reminds me a lot of what happened a year ago with [former Chicago Bears player] Dave Duerson," Cardenas said. "When he shot himself in the chest, he left a note saying, 'Take my brain to the NFL brain bank,' and they found actually that he did have signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE."

CTE is a degenerative disease found in people who have suffered multiple concussions and other head injuries. It's most often found in athletes who play contact or high-impact sports.

Like Duerson, Seau shot himself in the chest. He did not, however, leave a note.

Cardenas said CTE is characterized by "microscopic changes that are consistent with repeated trauma."

CTE is not a new condition. Doctors have seen it in boxers since the 1920s. It's only recently, however, that they've even looked for it in football players and other athletes.

When a football player takes a hit, the brain actually moves around inside the skull, slamming into the bone.

"There's probably some little micro-hemorrhages that occur," Cardenas explained. "That results in concussion and post-concussion syndrome."

The frightening thing is that somebody who has suffered a concussion might not even realize it. Concussion does not always involve loss of consciousness and the symptoms can be relatively mild.

Which brings us to the dangerous part.

Cardenas said it's essential that the brain heals completely before the athlete returns to playing and risks another injury. "The thought is if you sustain repeated concussions before you've healed, before your brain has healed, then that can, in some people, lead to CTE."

Cardenas explained that post-concussion syndrome, even from a single concussion, generally causes physical changes, sleep changes and mood changes like anxiety, depression and irritability.

"That actually is a normal response to concussion," he said. "Then the individual will heal over a matter of weeks to months. We don't see permanent changes unless they get another concussion before they're healed. … Our current understanding is once you've healed from that concussion, then you shouldn't have a risk of having permanent problems."

It's not just professional athletes who have to worry about the long-term effects of multiple concussions. More and more doctors and parents are concern about students athletes, whose brains, depending on age, might still be developing.

In fact, Arizona has passed a law requiring student athletes to be educated on the dangers of traumatic brain injuries. If they don't pass a special exam, they don't play.

Cardenas,a  specialist in child neurology, has taken the lead on the issue of concussion prevention and research here in Arizona.

To learn more information about Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital visit thebarrow.org.

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