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ALS and Head Trauma in Football


This is a photo of Steve Gleason, a former special teams player for the New Orleans Saints who now suffers from ALS.  His campaign Team Gleason is committed to helping people with ALS and finding a cure for the disease.

With all the hype of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in the media these days, people are educating themselves about the symptoms and causes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Most people educate themselves enough to know that ALS is a progressive, non-curable neurodegenerative disease that causes muscle weakness, paralysis, and death.   Nearly 100 million dollars have been donated this summer to ALS research.  We are all hoping that the research will lead to ways to prevent and cure ALS.

Like most neurodegenerative mysteries like ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease, there is likely to be more than one single cause of each disease.  Scientists try to link personal experiences, medical histories, genetics, social factors, and environmental influences to disease prevalence and reach conclusions about the likelihood of developing a condition.

Head trauma prevention in contact sports, particularly football, has moved to the forefront of sports injury awareness since nearly 4500 ex-professional football players filed a class action law suit with an injury lawyer against the NFL and settled in 2013.  The issue has warranted increased research and increased discussion in the media, with most conversations revolving around the risk of developing dementia due to repetitive head trauma.  This has put concussion prevention at the forefront of sports safety regulations in kids’ sports.

Here’s the skinny on ALS and football-related head injuries: According to Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, a player in the National Football League is four times more likely to die of ALS or Alzheimer’s than the general population.

It’s not a far stretch to say that professional football players were once adolescent football players, who may have had multiple head blows long before reaching the NFL… long before their brains were fully myelinated and their necks were strong enough to absorb accelerated forces from impact.  The research definitely supports an increased risk of developing ALS in professional football players, which must indirectly (at least anecdotally) put the amateurs at risk as well.

So one way to lower your risk of developing ALS (perhaps make you 4 times less likely to develop it) might be to never become a professional football player.  Another way might be to never become an amateur football player, or an adolescent football player, or to avoid repetitive head injury from any sport.

The point is, ALS is non-discriminatory and is not limited to athletes or the genetically predisposed.  But any link the scientific community can find between risk factors that our within our control ought to be thoughtfully considered when we choose our behaviors.

Brought to you by the mother of a 13 year old boy who is obsessed with football and a husband who suffered multiple football-related concussions in his youth and wears them as badges of honor.  We are a football family.  This is a hard discussion.

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