Athletes Speak Up about Traumatic Brain Injuries

Chris Nowinski and Ben UtechtIn recent years, there has been increasing awareness about the risk and consequences of traumatic brain injuries (TBI), especially in young athletes. CBS News reports that now, two former professional athletes have brought even more awareness to the issue by testifying about their stories before Congress.

On Wednesday, the Senate Special Committee on Aging heard from both Chris Nowinski and Ben Utecht about the long-term consequences of multiple head injuries. Nowinski is a Harvard graduate and former professional wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment and Utecht is a former NFL player for the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts. Both of these athletes said they continued to suffer years after the head injuries occurred.

“The symptoms then expanded beyond daily headaches to include depression and sleep walking, and it would not go away. But I lied about my symptoms for five weeks thinking I was doing the right thing,” said Nowinski, who is the  founding executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit to raise awareness and funding for concussion research. He told the committee that his first injury occurred during a wrestling match when he was 24, but he kept going despite the constant headaches. “My ignorance cost me my career, cost me at least five years of my health with terrible post-concussion syndrome, and I don’t know what it’s going to cost me in the future. But CTE is what I fear most.”

CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that can be caused by repeated head injuries. Many symptoms of CTE, such as memory loss, cognitive impairment and changes in mood and behavior, are similar to symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease. People are at increased risk for these conditions if they have many TBIs. Many large studies have found that repeated TBI can lead to a buildup of amyloid and tau plaques in the brain, which is a distinct characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Utecht said that he realized how severe his injuries were when he was put into an ambulance after his fifth documented concussion. “For the first time in my life my brain became a priority and the reason why it became a priority is because at 29 years old, I started to have memory problems and it took losing my mind to care about my mind,” he said. “It’s time for all of us to realize how special our brains really are. ”

Lawmakers have been making an effort to raise awareness, through this hearing and other public events. According to CBS News, the White House held its first Health Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit in May.

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