Opinion Columns & Blogs

Keeping the brain safe is limited by physics

Bob Lutz’s column “Tragedy should raise questions” (May 5 Sports) highlighted discussions within the world of sports and medicine.

I personally loved watching Junior Seau play football. He personified the best in American football. The price he may have paid, however, seems too steep.

Many suspect Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the medical term for repeated injury to brain cells and their connections, leading to an early onset illness similar to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

As the jewel of our anatomy, the brain is where we live, holding our hopes, our dreams and our enormous potential. Its 4 pounds of tissue contain 100 billion nerve cells, each firing 10 to 100 times a second, each stimulating thousands of other cells over 1,000 miles of interconnected hairlike structures.

But the brain was not designed to handle rapid acceleration and deceleration. It is the differing density of the cells and their fine connections that leave the brain so vulnerable to shearing injury.

All sports involving motion – football, soccer, basketball, wrestling – contain an inherent risk for a concussion/mild traumatic brain injury. One does not need to be hit in the head to sustain injury to the brain. A blow to the body with associated rapid head movement is just as damaging.

The brain has a limited ability to repair itself. With each blow, the brain loses connections, simplifying its function. When enough cells are injured to create outward symptoms, a concussion is considered to have occurred.

Major advances have been made in protective equipment over the past 40 years. But keeping the brain safe is limited by physics, and helmets will never absorb enough energy or eliminate all the motion. The brain simply does not like to be shaken at any stage in life.

I am as active as the next guy, having played high school football and still participating in taekwondo and regularly riding a motorcycle. Mild traumatic brain injury occurs often enough in everyday life, so voluntarily stepping into harm’s way repeatedly in activities such as football requires consideration. Our children’s safety is paramount.

It is vital that athletes, parents and coaches understand the real potential for brain injury while playing sports, as our children are regularly put in athletic situations that may cause permanent brain injury and limit their ability to reach their full potential.

In 2011 the Kansas Legislature passed a bill requiring a physician’s authorization before any student athlete suspected of sustaining a head injury can return to practice and play. This action led to the Kansas Sports Concussion Partnership, convened by the Kansas Medical Society, to regularly review the medical literature, update guidelines, and promote effective concussion recognition and management.

The partnership’s work is coordinated by the Medical Society of Sedgwick County and undertaken by a team of Kansas professionals – trauma surgeons, sports and family medicine physicians, neurologists, neuropsychologists and athletic trainers. Its website, www.KansasConcussion.org, contains reliable, up-to-date information about sports-related head injuries for physicians, athletes, parents, coaches, athletic trainers and school officials.

I encourage all Kansans, especially parents and student athletes, to visit the website and educate themselves on the signs of a concussion and how to manage recovery. It’s better to miss a game or two while the brain heals than to suffer the consequences forever.