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Making Sports Healthy and Safe

When you talk to your neighbor about the upcoming Super Bowl, what is the first topic that comes to mind? The teams, the odds of your favorite winning, or the injuries that have rattled professional athletes all season long. Right now is prime time for the NFL, and their injuries list is often top of the sportscast. You might have discussed the hard hit on Buffalo Bills’ Tyrod Taylor that caused him to walk off of the field with a concussion. Or perhaps you are focused on Cowboys’ Randy Gregory suspension for failed drug tests. Perhaps the Super Bowl teams are on the forefront of your mind with Patriots’ Alan Branch sitting out due to a knee injury. But what about when you are talking about your son’s or daughter’s sports? Do those same injuries come into conversation?

CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a condition that has been hotly discussed over the past few years, particularly in relation to hard contact sports, like football. CTE is a “progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma…The repeated brain trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau.” Most notably is the understanding that concussion and repetitive hits to the head are risk factors for developing CTE. However, an article by CNN reveals new research on the complicated disease that is CTE. New evidence suggests that CTE, “can start early and without any signs of concussion.” This discovery could have profound implications on the understanding of the incidence and development of disease, because the progression no longer fits a long term time scale of neuro-degeneration in older adults. The disease could now be implicated in youth or have sudden onset of symptoms if the build up of Tau bodies is rapidly onset. “Currently, the only way to diagnose CTE is with an autopsy after death,” but these findings indicate that there are serious implications for the athletes potentially living with undiagnosed CTE. In fact, there is even a movement to limit tackle football among youth. Concussion Legacy Foundation’s Flag Football has an Under 14 initiative that “aims to warn parents about the dangers of football’s repetitive hits.”

Although CTE is most widely discussed among football players, there are other concerns for athletes that should be considered. There is even a list of the Seven Most Common Professional Sport Injuries, which indicates that injuries are not uncommon in the sports world. However, the injury risk appears to be a part of the game. That is, until an athlete has an injury so severe that it ends his or her career. In fact, a baseball player in the early 1900s even died from internal injuries sustained during a baseball game. Physical injuries are not the only health problems making waves in the news recently. The discussion of mental health among athletes has been growing.I n fact, the NCAA has an entire page dedicated to mental health resources on it’s website. The positive direction of mental health resources has been growing in trajectory. Michael Phelps even conducted an interview about his own struggle with depression among his Olympic victories earlier this week.

These findings, by no means, rule out sports as a form of physical fitness. Rather, it is important to understand the possible risks of contact sports and play safely. As scientists and organizations learn more about the negative impact of certain aspects of game play, rules and guidelines may change so that athletes can participate in sports in a safer manner.

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