When the game’s over: The link between contact sports and brain injuries

By Melissa Myers

After 14 years of fighting and over 100 fights including boxing, MMA and kickboxing matches, life is not the same anymore for Gary Goodridge.  Goodridge, who resides in Barrie, Ont., was an accomplished fighter and author of the book Gatekeeper: The Fighting Life of Gary “Big Daddy” Goodridge. Now retired, he has been diagnosed with a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the result of numerous concussions.

“In a day I probably lose 70 per cent of what is happening,” said Goodridge, referring to his short-term memory. “I couldn’t tell you what I was doing a half hour ago.”

Gary Goodridge. Photo from Twitter.
Gary Goodridge. Photo from Twitter.

CTE, formerly known as boxer’s dementia, occurs when a protein called Tau builds up in the brain after several concussions.  Those diagnosed exhibit symptoms similar to dementia or Alzheimer’s.  Although Goodridge’s biography and the overtly aggressive nature of fighting in MMA and kickboxing are extreme examples, concussions are quite commonplace and the risks become even higher when participating in any contact sport.

“Concussions are the most frequent head injury,” said Dr. Paul Comper, Clinical Neuropsychologist in the Neuro Rehabilitation Program at Toronto Rehab, in an interview last month.  Dr. Comper says football/rugby, hockey and soccer are the most high-risk contact sports because of the associated speed and aggression.

Concussions, also referred to as mild traumatic head or brain injuries (MTHI’s or mTBI’s), occur when a person who is moving quickly comes to an abrupt stop and their brain hits up against their skull.  Although helmets can protect the skull, they cannot protect against concussion when high speeds are involved, as abrasions can still occur to the brain tissue when an athlete’s head comes into contact with another player or a hard surface.

This action often results in the symptoms we associate with concussions, such as blurred vision, nausea, dizziness, and in extreme cases, loss of consciousness. When athletes show no symptoms, their injury is called a sub-concussion. But just because it is not apparent a concussion has been sustained at the time, that  doesn’t stop its long-term effects from becoming apparent later on.

“It is an injury that can be managed and should be managed effectively,” said Dr. Comper.

He says that because symptoms may not arise right away, allowing an injured player to re-enter the game too quickly could have catastrophic results.  Dr. Comper stressed that educating parents and coaches about the proper steps to take after athletes sustain a concussion can make all the difference in the long run.

Dr. Comper also noted that the best treatments for concussions are removal from play, rest, and gradual reactivation. Spectators on the scene can have an essential role in initiating the healing process by ensuring the player does not return to play. 

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