In 1994 rheumatologist Elliot Pellman chaired the NFL’s council on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI – there is NO ‘Mild’ in this issue). “Concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk,” … a football player is “like a steelworker who goes up 100 stories, or a soldier. Veterans clear more quickly than rookies…They can unscramble their brains a little faster, maybe because they’re not afraid after being dinged“.
“There’s going to be some controversy about you going back to play.” Pellman personally sent a concussed Wayne Chrebet back onto the field soon after he had been knocked unconscious by a hit, reportedly telling him, “This is very important for your career.” Days later, Wayne is sluggish and his head aches. In 2005 Pellman et al published their seventh study in the official journal of the Congress of Neurosurgeons, concluding: “Return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season.” And remember that the identities of the physician peers who reviewed and approved this nonsensical article are kept secret.
This may be perplexing to non-US residents. The opening of 2012 Southpark episode ‘Sarcastaball’ explains why taking a massive hit is a game tradition, using the naivete of kids.
Forensic pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu’s investigations from 2002-’09 are documented in the book by Jeanne Marie Laskas, ‘Concussion’ (and now a Ridley Scott film). An outsider to medicine despite attaining eight degrees, his strongly principled clash with the industry is a repeat of the tobacco deception. Right down to the NFL sharing the same law firm, Covington & Burling! US Congress questions were the turning point for transparency over subsequent years, and not the medicos. NFL boss Roger Goodell still thinks the concussion protocol just needs tweaking.
Self-regulation failed again.
It was only a month ago that the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders & Stroke, and of Biomedical Imaging & Bioengineering defined the ‘neuropathological criteria for the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy‘ (CTE). Mostly unintelligible to layfolk, it’s nonetheless of sufficient importance to be published in a public journal. Like boxing, CTE is estimated in about a quarter of gridiron players, and is manifest in mental disturbances – but the tau tangles are invisible to imaging, until staining of brain slices post-mortem. Higher risk is posed to the spectrum of disease from Alzheimers to Parkinsons, and the month prior funds were allocated to research on diagnostic tests in the living. Although the NFL contributed nothing, the Players Union did. Professor Stern’s lab website is linked, and the urgency of guidelines for safer ages to start playing football fires discussion of their work, since the myelin sheath on neurons improves protection after the age of 14. Demyelination diseases include MS, so research implications go far beyond these elite professionals turning violent. Omalu also found CTE in a TBI war veteran who suicided, hence the penny has dropped regarding ‘Walking Wounded’.
I clashed with our Ski Patrol MO, then a Resident at Box Hill hospital, over management of a teenager who’d bounced off a tree. His mother’s concern was that the subdued manner was totally opposite to his usual bouncing off walls. A doctor trumps a paramedic, and I was chastised for trying to turn him into a victim. She sent them home, saying “Don’t worry about vomiting, he’s likely to be carsick“. Next day I rang the family – he slept for 21 hours.
How can this come to pass? I suspect the teaching in a medical degree that anything above the ears is the province of psych, must be addressed first. Holistic medicine is the only sensible way to treat.