Action For Brain Injury Week is an annual, week-long awareness raising event that aims to promote understanding of all aspects of brain injury. This year one of the areas receiving particular attention, and which has drawn significant coverage in the media, is the increasing evidence of a link between brain injuries and dementia.
It is suggested that there may be a link between sports-related traumatic brain injuries and dementia particularly in contact and collision sports such as boxing, American football, rugby, and ice hockey. Boxing is perhaps the most obviously dangerous sport with regard to head injuries given that one of the tactics involved is to render your opponent unconscious by repeated blows to the head. An opponent in boxing can be described as ‘punch drunk’ based on the exhibited physical symptoms.
Other high impact sports also frequently result in concussion and loss of consciousness, and there is now more research being performed into whether there is a link between subtle repeated blows to the head in these sports and long-term brain injury.
In a recent television programme featuring Alan Shearer, the danger of repeatedly heading a football was highlighted in the history of ex-footballers with early onset dementia. The possible dementia link made the news following the death of Jeff Astle in 2002. He was a renowned header of the ball, scoring 174 goals in 361 games for West Bromich Albion and played five times for England but tragically died after developing dementia. His health went downhill very rapidly from 1997, almost exactly 20 years after he had retired from professional football. At the inquest following his death, consultant neuropathologist Dr Derek Robson explained that Astle was suffering from a brain condition which was likely to have been exacerbated by heading a football. He found considerable evidence of trauma similar to that found in boxers’ brains. The weight of a football has reduced since professionals such as Astle stopped playing with leather balls, but the speed of a headed ball has increased. Studies continue to research the effect and potential links with brain injury.
The term ‘punch drunk’ was used long before any connection between boxing and brain damage was explored and after it was determined that there was a link between repeated blows to the head and brain injury, the term became known as ‘dementia pugilistica’. Since it is now known to occur outside the boxing ring as well, we now call it chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is known to lead to memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, depression, and, eventually, full-blown dementia. It can start many years after the original head injury, or accumulation of head injuries, and can only be diagnosed after the person has died.
Recent research, from an analysis of over 40,000 people who sustained some kind of head injury between 1986 and 2014, published in the New Scientist, has shown that suffering a traumatic head injury nearly doubles a person’s risk of developing dementia. Accordingly, sporting bodies have attempted to address the issue - in amateur boxing fighters wear more protection around their heads, in American football there has already been a large settlement by the organising body in recognition of the problem and rugby has introduced head injury assessments. However, many neurologists say some of these sporting bodies have not gone far enough to protect sportspersons from suffering long-term injury.
The Penningtons Manches personal injury team has a number of specialists in acquired brain injury claims working with clients who have experienced serious head injuries or debilitating conditions following traumatic brain injury from an early stage to maximise the benefits of rehabilitation. They deal with the delicate issues of liability, obtain funding and make provision for clients’ therapy, long-term care and financial needs.