A lot of people don’t exactly know what a concussion is, never mind the severity of this brain injury. Concussions are considered a mild brain injury because they are not usually life-threatening. This is correct. A concussion is usually not a life-threatening injury which is why people didn’t use to pay it much attention. However, the attitudes toward concussions have changed in the last few years because of the discoveries that medical research has uncovered. So after having said all this, what is a concussion exactly? A concussion is defined as a traumatic brain injury that is caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head to hit the ground or that causes the brain to bounce around or rattle within the skull. This trauma causes chemical changes in the brain and sometimes stretching and damaging brain cells. Because of people having given brain injuries more attention over the past few years, there have been many new discoveries regarding the effects of brain trauma, precisely concussions, on the brain of individuals, more specifically, athletes. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, better known as CTE, is one quite important discovery. CTE is a degenerative brain disease that is found in athletes and others who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. Dr. Bennet Omalu is the medical researcher who discovered the disease when examining the brain of Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the greatest centers to ever play the game, who had committed suicide. This discovery was significant because it led to a clearer understanding of the implications of the disease and its effects on the athlete’s physical and emotional well-being. Therefore, this raises the question: In what way does brain trauma due to head collisions negatively impact athletes’ well-being? By thinking of the different aspects of people’s everyday lives, we can approach this question at three different angles. Upon analyzing a person’s biological, psychological and social well-being, this paper aims to illustrate to what extent brain trauma and concussions can negatively affect a person, more specifically, an athlete’s ability to function daily.
The biological effects of an injury, which are better known as the physical effects, are defined as substantial physical pain or any impairment of physical condition. Athletes, especially those who play very physical contact-based sports, are exposed to the risks of suffering multiple types of injuries. Especially athletes who play sports such as football, hockey, soccer, and rugby are significantly more exposed when it comes to the risks of suffering injuries related to brain trauma, such as concussions. A concussion causes the different parts of the brain to move at different speeds, producing shearing forces that can stretch and tear nerve tissue. In Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas, she discusses Dr. Omalu’s assertion that “A helmet can’t keep the brain from sloshing around in that skull. If you hit your head hard enough, the brain goes bashing against the walls of the skull.”
League of Denial, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, is a documentary that talks about the NFL and its response to concussions. In this documentary, they proceed to attempt to expose everything the NFL has been covering up about concussions and their repercussions on their players for decades. This whole scandal leads to scientific discovery, the discovery of CTE by Dr. Bennet Omalu. CTE is a degenerative brain disease in which a protein forms within your brain. Dr. Omalu discovered this disease in the brains of NFL players whom he examined after they had passed away. The protein that forms within the subject’s brain is called Tau. It accumulates and forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. Symptoms of CTE appear years after the head trauma. This disease causes symptoms that affect a patient’s mood and behaviour. Some common changes include impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia. In the latter stages, the patient encounters difficulties regarding thinking and memory. This includes memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement, and progressive dementia. Mike Webster was the first ever NFL player who committed suicide, to have his brain examined. Webster’s family’s decision to have Mike’s brain examined, ultimately led to him being diagnosed with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). The fact that Mike Webster committed suicide leads us to question the effects of brain trauma regarding a person’s physical and psychological well being.
Since Mike Webster’s suicide brought to the forefront the correlation between head injury and psychological well-being, there has been more attention directed to this issue. In League of Denial, Pam Webster, Mike’s wife discloses the changes in Mike’s personality. She contributes to the book by stating her observations about her husband’s behaviour.
“Before Mike rarely raised his voice; now his temper was short. He became easily distracted and forgetful. He was often lethargic and indecisive. Where Webster once had approached his work with unrelenting focus, now “he couldn’t decide what to have for breakfast,” Pam said.” p 29. Her statement supports the findings of mental health professionals whose research demonstrates that head injuries and specifically CTE cause other psychological issues that need to be addressed. The issues are depression, irritability, frustration and aggression, apathy and loss of initiative as well as anxiety. Mike Webster demonstrated many of these characteristics prior to his death. But the question remains as to why these patients experience these mental health issues.
Depression is a common emotional reaction to a concussion. An athlete’s livelihood depends on the ability to perform at the highest level. After suffering an injury, such as a concussion, an athlete’s skills are directly affected, and he cannot perform at the same level as he was before. Therefore, because of a loss or diminishment of skills, those afflicted could have long term consequences because they cannot do what they were able to do prior to the concussion. Life will not be as it was before, and this can have a lasting impact on relationships. The challenges that patients with concussions must deal with result in a realization that their life will not be the same as it was before, and this is difficult for them to accept. The uncertainty that surrounds the patient leads to other mental health issues like irritability, frustration, and aggression.
Pam Webster reported that Mike was irritable and short-tempered. This is common behaviour for patients who have succumbed to a brain injury. According to Dr. Andy Tyerman, in Psychological effects of brain injury, “People with a brain injury are often impatient, intolerant of others’ mistakes, and easily irritated by interruptions, such as noise from children or machinery, which disrupt their concentration. They are frequently reported to be short-tempered, for example when things do not work out as expected or where there are differences of opinion with family or work colleagues.” (p. 10) This frustration is related to the slow recovery rate and the fact that they are injured and cannot do what they could do prior to the injury. Also, Dr. Tyerman states that patients with brain injuries cannot control their impulses and this can lead to angry outbursts and sometimes physical aggression. This proves the theory that brain trauma due to head collisions negatively impact athlete’s well-being as it demonstrates the psychological hardship that athletes must endure and how it can ultimately in some cases make them mad to the point where they throw their lives away in different ways, including suicide and/or self-harm.
The way people act within society is affected by their mood. People often also don’t realize how their actions can affect others that surround them. The biological and psychological effects that brain trauma, more specifically concussions, have on people’s well being, affects the social aspect of their lives in a negative way. This means that it can lead to stress on the family who are patiently waiting for recovery, while also grieving for the loss of the person that they once knew because, after the accident, they are no longer the same person. This can cause friction in the family because of the need to adjust to new roles in the family unit. Moreover, the person who has succumbed the injury can also in some cases resort to social isolation for reasons such as the shame of not being like they were before, the frustration of always having to explain why they’re not feeling well even if from the outside, they seem perfectly “normal”. In addition, there is also the horrible feeling that no one understands what the person is going through, therefore the person has the simple desire to isolate themselves to avoid situations that can trigger or worsen their symptoms. Mike Webster also experienced social isolation. In the book Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas, she describes Mike Webster’s erratic and incomprehensible behaviour after he retired from the NFL. “he disappeared, came back. Months at a time disappeared wandered back.’ (p.95) This behaviour was difficult for his children and for his wife to deal with because this was not who Mike was. It was whom Mike had become and the family members not only grieved the loss of the old Mike but the reality of the new Mike.
After all this information regarding concussions in sport leaked out and gained more traction and attention within society, the way people thought about the topic also changed. Football is very popular, especially in small towns and rural areas where there are fewer opportunities and where families and students are looking for a way to pay for post-secondary education. Football is also a huge sports industry in the US. However, society has changed their way of thinking, people have changed their point of view on football. There are now fewer players as parents don’t want their kids to play, more rules and guidelines, and only certified coaches coach football teams. This huge societal change has largely taken place because there is a large risk of concussions when playing football. The same has occurred in schools where a concussion protocol has been adopted. In the NHL, the same can be stated as the NHL takes head trauma much more seriously now than it used to.
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