Study Finds Connection Between Football and Brain Injuries

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This high school offensive tackle wears a helmet to help protect himself from injury. A new study supports the connection between repetitive head injuries received by football players and CTE, a serious brain disease.

This high school offensive tackle wears a helmet to help protect himself from injury. A new study supports the connection between repetitive head injuries received by football players and CTE, a serious brain disease.

In order to stay healthy, people need to stay active. Exercise helps us by fighting disease, keeping us happy, and helping us sleep better.

Many people exercise by participating in sports. However, many people who participate in a sport will experience injuries from time to time. Runners may sprain their ankles during a track meet, or baseball players may scrape their arms while diving into home plate. In these cases, most people agree that the benefit to our health outweighs such minor injuries.

In recent years, however, people have started to become concerned about the injuries people can receive while playing football. When players tackle each other, sometimes their heads can crash into one another;s helmets, bodies, or the ground. Even with protective helmets, there are concerns that repeated head injuries can lead to serious health conditions.

A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms this concern. Researchers found that a high number of the brains of football players showed signs of a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE for short.

What is CTE?

When people receive a hard blow to their heads, sometimes they receive a type of brain injury called a concussion. Concussions are more common in contact sports like football, boxing, or rugby. The effects of a concussion are usually temporary. Some of the symptoms are headaches, along with problems with concentrating, remembering things, balance, and coordination. In some cases, a person may become unconscious. Usually, however, the injured person stays awake and alert. In fact, it is possible to receive a concussion and not even realize it. Only a doctor may be able to tell.

Most people recover from concussions. However, researchers think that CTE results from  many concussions or hits to the head over many years. If you have received a concussion or two while playing sports, there is probably no need to worry. Most people with CTE have had hundreds or thousands of hits to their heads over many years. Scientists think that even hits to the head that aren’t strong enough to cause a concussion can play a role in CTE.

CTE is caused by the development of abnormal forms of a protein called tau which can occur after repeated head trauma. These types of tau proteins destroy brain cells. At first, CTE symptoms include memory loss and confusion, but eventually it can lead to a serious mental condition called dementia. CTE can also affect people’s moods and cause cognitive impairments.

What the Study Found

Researchers studied the brains of 202 deceased football players aged 23 to 89. The subjects included not only professional players, but also people who played only in high school or college. The researchers found that 110 of the 111 National Football League (NFL) players’ brains showed signs of CTE. Although not as prevalent in student players, the researchers found signs of CTE in 48 out of 53 of the college players and 3 out of 14 of high school players. The players studied included a variety of team positions. However, researchers found that linemen, running backs, and defensive backs were the most susceptible.

“There’s no question that there’s a problem in football. That people who play football are at risk for this disease,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a coauthor of the study. “We urgently need to find answers for not just football players, but veterans and other individuals exposed to head trauma.”

The researchers do admit to limitations in their study. One reason why so many of the players they studied showed signs of CTE is because families of players who showed “symptoms and signs of brain injury” were more likely to donate brains to the study. “Caution must be used in interpreting the high frequency of CTE in this sample,” the researchers warn, “and estimates of prevalence cannot be concluded or implied from this sample.”

The scientists also caution people not to conclude that anyone who plays football is at risk. “Most players of American football have played only on youth or high school teams,” they write, “but the majority of the brain bank donors in this study played at the college or professional level.”

It is also true that not every professional football player gets CTE. “Some players do not have evidence of this disease despite long playing years,” Dr. McKee admits. She also notes there is a possibility that drug use, steroids, alcohol abuse, and diet could play a role.

Even with these limitations, the researchers remain excited about their study. They say it strengthens the connection between football and CTE. The study concludes, “a high proportion had neuropathological evidence of CTE, suggesting that CTE may be related to prior participation in football.”

This diagram shows how a concussion can injure the human brain.

This diagram shows how a concussion can injure the human brain.


One reason why this study is receiving so much attention is that until recently, the subject of CTE in football remained controversial. For example, the NFL denied for years that there was any connection. However, their position changed in 2015. The NFL settled a class-action lawsuit brought by former players who have problems related to CTE. The NFL must now pay up to $1 billion in medical costs for 20,000 current and former football players with CTE.

In 2016, the NFL publicly acknowledged the link. In a discussion with U.S. Congress members, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health, was asked whether he thought there was a link between football and CTE. Miller said that research “shows that a number of retired NFL players were diagnosed with CTE, so the answer to that question is certainly yes.

In a statement, the NFL welcomed the findings of the current CTE study. “We appreciate the work done by Dr. McKee and her colleagues for the value it adds in the ongoing quest for a better understanding of CTE,” they said. “The NFL is committed to supporting scientific research into CTE and advancing progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries.”

Dr. McKee says that her study is valuable because it makes the connection between football and CTE even more evident.

“My hope is we’ll stop arguing about whether or not this is a problem, or whether or not it needs to be addressed,” she said. “We need to take our heads out of the sand. It’s not going away because we want it to.”

Additional Resources

Read more about the study linking football with CTE at CNN and NPR.

Get more detailed information about CTE at the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Learn how to stay safe when playing sports at the National Institute of Arthritis and Muscoloskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Images and Sources

Football player with helmet photo: Sgt. Reece Lodder
Football player with helmet photo license: Public domain

Concussion diagram: Max Andrews
Concussion diagram license: Creative Commons 3.0