As a parent of three children, I never want to see any of them end up in the emergency room. But if your teen is on the high school football team this season, there’s a one in five chance that your child will sustain a concussion. Now, coaches are very aware of the potential dangers of contact sports, like football, hockey, and also soccer. In fact, the number of young athletes across all sports suffering head trauma has increased by 200% over the last decade. Now, great efforts are being made to make sports safer. Millions of dollars are being poured into research projects, but as a parent, I still have to ask, “Would I let my son risk brain injury for the sake of a game?”
If you’re the parent of a young athlete who dreams of being an NFL star or a hockey legend, you won’t want to miss this episode. Most of us at some point have probably had a bump on the head. But a concussion caused by a fall or a severe blow is potentially much more dangerous. Dizziness, headache, a loss of balance, or even a complete blackout needs to be carefully assessed and monitored. Here’s what we do know – the more concussions you have over a sports career, the greater the risk of a catastrophic head injury. And this is what we are talking about: the effects of sports on our kids.
My first guest is Bethany Wirgowski. Her husband was defensive end Dennis Wirgowski. But a series of game-related injuries brought an end to his career, and – she’s convinced – also led to a sudden and very shocking death.
She noticed certain subtle personality changes in her husband. He had more anger issues and was more impulsive. She believes that those changes were a result of football. One day he said goodbye and “I love you” to Bethany and she felt something was different about him. Later that day his brother found him. She donated her husband’s brain to the Concussion Legacy, Boston University. They tested and found out he had CTE.
Despite being a nurse, Bethany didn’t have the training to see the signs. Now she is a safeTALK trainer, which is kind of a form of CPR for suicide awareness. She is also an assist-trained for interventions, and her passion is to get as many people trained because suicide is preventable. We talk more about her husband’s suicide, sports, and raising awareness together.
My second guest is Dr. Daniel Amen who joined us by Skype. He has scanned the brains of more than 200 NFL players. And also tested their cognitive abilities and psychiatric histories.
Dr. Amen shared some fascinating findings with us. It turns out that more than 90% of our NFL players had very clear evidence of chronic traumatic brain injury. That wasn’t too surprising because the brain is soft, about the consistency of soft butter. And your skull is really hard and has sharp bony ridges. So getting hit repeatedly is a really bad idea. But what was surprising to learn was that when Dr. Amen put players on a brain rehabilitation program, 80% of them showed improvement! So you’re not stuck with the brain you have, but it’s probably a good idea not to hurt it.
Our brain actually doesn’t finish developing until people are about 25. Dr. Amen is not a fan of contact sports for children – hitting soccer balls with their heads, playing football and hockey, being flyers in cheerleading, etc. all present numerous chances for them to get injured. We need to do a better job of protecting children’s brains. Because if their brains get damaged, so does the ability for them to be the most effective in their lives. Dr. Amen and I discuss this topic more in detail during our interview.
My third guest is Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player, and wrestling pro. Chris was forced to quit wrestling, and that’s when he really started fighting.
Chris was on Monday Night Raw, a professional wrestling television program when he got kicked in the head by his opponent, Bubba Ray Dudley. He was caught unawares in the Hartford Civic Center, he didn’t know where he was nor what he was doing. But his head was throbbing like it never had before. Apparently, that was a concussion, but he didn’t really realize it. So they finished the match and when he got backstage, he sort of played it down, like he did when he was an athlete. If you’re hurt, you don’t really want to tell anybody. So, he lied about his concussion for basically five weeks. And it wasn’t until he developed a sleep disorder and almost killed himself jumping off a bed through a nightstand that he realized something was wrong. And he had to find out what. We talk more about what happened during our interview.
Dr. Neal Alpiner who specializes in neurorehabilitation for children and adults in Michigan believes we have to really put things in perspective.
There is a lot of hysteria about sports and concussions. Dr. Alpiner points out that if you’re concerned your child was injured, don’t worry about overreacting. Bringing them to the emergency room to see a specialist is always good. The hysteria often shows up online, like on social media when people say things like “my child had this happen to them. They have CTE. They have end-stage,” or, “I can’t remember where I put my keys. I have dementia.” Dr. Apliner says the chances are very low that there will be any long-term ramifications or any problems if your child had a concussion. Even if we speculate multiple concussions over long periods of time, with complete symptoms, where everything gets better, there is still no evidence that that’s going to lead to a long-term problem. However, we simply don’t know what the real chances of future problems are. Dr. Alpiner and I talk more about what the chances are that concussions can actually lead to long-term serious injury.
My fifth guest is James Davidson. He is only 21, but he’s already sustained not one but eight separate concussions. His passion is ice hockey. He started at three and had his first concussion at five. His parents actually weren’t that passionate about hockey. He had some doctor consults because of the may concussions, but he loved hockey so much that he decided to continue to play. We talked more about hockey and concussions with James, and why is he still playing.