Thursday, May 31, 2012

The invisible injury

Until May 3 I had never heard of Junior Seau. That morning, his girlfriend found him in the spare bedroom of his home near San Diego, a gunshot wound in his chest. There was no note. This was Wednesday, around the time we were driving from the Big Texan to the airport in Amarillo.

Reading more, I learned he was a famous linebacker, nicknamed Junebug. Six foot three. Lots of friends. Probably seemed invinceable.

During 20 years in the NFL Junior Seau sustained multiple concussions, none of which were diagnosed. The Chargers team chaplain said he never heard Junior complain about headaches, or other symptoms. "With Junior, that would be so outside of his nature because he had an amazing threshold for pain". Apparently, he was a fighter with a great attitude. Friends and family said they weren't aware of any recent issues that would cause him to kill himself. A neighbor was the only person Junior Seau told about his concussions and constant headaches.

His family decided to let the autopsy include a brain study. No results yet.

In the midst of this sad human story, I am encouraged by recent progress made by a team at the Boston University medical school. They studied the brains of veterans who had been exposed to bomb blasts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also recreated bomb blasts in the lab to study the effects on mice.

They found the same types of brain changes in the veterans, and in the mice, as had been previously found in professional athletes like Dave Duerson. They found abnormal proteins that indicate CTE, or chronic traumatic encephelopathy. When a soldier is near a single IED blast in a combat zone, his or her brain is affected in a similar way as an athlete who has spent his career taking hits in the NFL or NHL. That's what it means.

The researchers emphasized that after the simulated blast, the mice in the study looked normal and healthy in every other way.  If Junior Seau or these soldiers had confessed to having symptoms, if they had sought help, I wonder what the response would been. We are so visually oriented, as a society. If we can't see something, it does not exist. CTE is a condition that can only be diagnosed for sure in an autopsy. They have to cut open the skull and look at the brain of a dead person. This article does a good job describing what CTE symptoms look like in someone who is alive.

So awareness is good, but is someone working on a better diagnostic tool?

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