What athletes need to know about concussions

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PHOENIX -- We've lost some big name athletes recently to a mystery brain disease. And with multiple concussions being a risk factor, researchers are working hard to find answers.

“It's about the rest of my life as opposed to one game or one season,” Steven Threet said.

While it wasn't easy, former Arizona State University quarterback Steven Threet knew it was time to walk away from football. This was after suffering his fourth concussion in a game back in November 2010.

“Five weeks later I still had that same headache that I did after I got that hit,” Threet said.

His headaches were so severe he couldn't get out of bed.

“They sent me along to Dr. [Javier] Cardenas to get another opinion and talk a little more to him about the process and then shortly after that I came to my conclusion,” Threet continued.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as many as 3.8 million sports and recreation related concussions occur each year in the United States.

“He put his health before the sport and not everyone can do that,” Cardenas said.

Cardenas is the Director of the B.R.A.I.N.S. Clinic at St. Joseph's Barrow Neurological Institute. He said it's important to not send any athlete back on the field until their concussion has healed completely.

“Right now our understanding of concussion is that once your brain recovers, then you should have the same ability to recover if you suffer another concussion,” Cardenas said.

Researchers are now looking at the possibility that people who have had multiple concussions may risk getting a degenerative brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.

“There are many more questions that are unanswered including how many concussions are too many,” Cardenas said. “‘Does concussion equal CTE?  What about all those other head injuries where you don't get a concussion?’”

A disease once associated with boxers is now being seen in other professional athletes. Dave Duerson and Derek Boogaard we’re found to have had signs of CTE after they died.

“There are studies out there now looking to see if we're able to diagnose this while someone is still alive,” Cardenas said.

The doctor says while researchers work hard to understand CTE, recovery is still one of your best tools.

“My brain couldn't take another hit and I think it's the acknowledging of the injury and the recovery process that is so important for athletes,” Threet said.

A national study has been launched to look at retired NFL players who have experienced repetitive brain trauma. The hope is to find ways to diagnose CTE while someone is still alive.

For more information:

BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy: http://www.bu.edu/cste/about/what-is-cte/

BRAINS Clinic at Barrow Neurological Institute http://www.thebarrow.org/Neurological_Services/B.R.A.I.N.S._Program/index.htm or 602-406-HEAD (4323)

Dr. Javier Cardenas, Neurology: