Football Highlights America’s “Silent Epidemic” of Brain Injuries
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Football Highlights America’s “Silent Epidemic” of Brain Injuries

Sunday, April 11, 2010By Richard Alexander

When Tim Tebow “got his bell rung”, which means that he suffered a concussion, he brought attention to America’s “silent epidemic” of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). For 2 weeks after Tebow’s injury, fans and talk show hosts talked about concussions and debated whether he should play in the team’s next game. Because Florida had a bye the following week, Tebow had 2 weeks to recover, and his injury brought a fleeting surge of publicity to a crippling form of personal injury that afflicts people of all ages but rarely draws attention.

Tebow is the quarterback for the University of Florida, and he took a vicious hit from a defensive end for the University of Kentucky. As Tebow fell backwards, his head struck the knee of a teammate and then bounced off the ground.

For a few moments, Kentucky’s fans roared their approval of the play, but the stadium quickly grew silent. As Tebow lay motionless, fans realized that he had suffered either a brain injury or a spinal cord injury.

Tebow was fortunate to have medical professionals on the sidelines, ready to treat him or any other injured player. That’s one of the benefits of playing football at the highest level. He received immediate attention and was able to play in the next game. Most victims of TBI are not that fortunate.

Zack Lystedt didn’t have a team of doctors and trainers waiting to treat him. Zack was a 13-year old player for Tahoma Junior High in Washington when he suffered a concussion as he made a tackle. Even though he grabbed his head in pain, his coaches put him back into the game.

Eventually, he collapsed and fell into a coma. He needed 2 brain surgeries, and 3 years later his devastating personal injury keeps him in a wheelchair. His family has reached a financial settlement with the school district, and perhaps some good will come of Zack’s injury. Because of Zack, the state of Washington has recently passed a law designed to protect other young athletes from a fate similar to his.

Zack’s Law says that any player suspected of having a concussion may not return to the field without a doctor's written approval. It’s a law that every state should copy because the collisions in football make head injuries almost inevitable, and football isn’t the only sport that’s dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control says 3.5 million concussions occur in all sports every year, and many studies have found that repeated minor concussions are more likely to cause long-term brain damage than one major blow.

Former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson played professional football for 10 years, and on a 60 Minutes interview he described the deep depression that had controlled his life for several years after his career ended. Hall Of Fame Tight End John Mackey also played for 10 years, and he now suffers from severe dementia. Some people acquainted with a former star quarterback say that he is showing signs of memory loss and slurring his words.

Football’s dangers are obvious, and the sport that the rest of the world calls football and Americans call soccer also causes significant injuries. One selling point for soccer has been that it’s supposedly less harmful than football, but studies have shown that soccer also causes brain damage. Soccer players don’t wear helmets, and they use their heads to direct the ball.

A Norwegian study of 106 soccer players found that 81 percent of them had trouble with their attention, concentration, memory, and judgment. An American study of 60 young adult soccer players found that problems with attention and concentration were significantly higher among soccer players than among young people who had never played the game.

And while the boys are suffering injuries on the field, the girls are tearing ACLs and suffering TBIs on the sidelines. Cheerleading, which was once a very safe activity, is now the most dangerous game for girls. Patty Phommanyvong spends her life in a nursing home because a cheerleading routine resulted in a brain injury when she was a 17-yeal old student at Marshall High in Los Angeles. She’s 19 now, and she can’t eat or speak. Her only means of communication is to blink her eyes.

Sports are the visible face of TBI, but sports actually cause a relatively small percentage of all brain injuries.  The leading causes are:

• Falls (28%)

Motor Vehicle crashes (20%)

• Struck by/against events (this includes sports injuries) (19%)

• Assaults (11%)

Of the 1.4 million Americans who do suffer a TBI every year:

• 50,000 die;

• 235,000 are hospitalized; and

• 1.1 million are treated and released from an emergency department.

The age groups that experience the most brain injuries are children from birth to 4-years old and adults 75 and older. Those are also the age groups that are most likely to suffer falls.

Brain injuries can also result from a lack of oxygen or exposure to harmful chemicals, especially in the workplace. Our client, Jack Zhao, is a boy who will never see or play because his mother’s employer exposed her to a workplace contaminated by toxic chemicals.

Football is the most visible cause of TBIs, but regardless of the cause, treatment is terribly expensive, and many victims require a lifetime of care. If you or someone you love has suffered a brain injury or if you suspect a TBI, talk to usto find out if we can help.  We have special experience representing survivors of brain injuries and can put that experience to work for you.

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Onward,

Richard Alexander

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