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Questioning the Link Between Sports-Related Concussions and CTE

Peter Cummings MSc, MD
Uzma Samadani MD, PhD
Jason Chung

On Jan. 18, an article by Dr. Lee Goldstein of Boston University and colleagues in Brain, a leading neurological journal, was released and touted as proving the link between subconcussive hits to the head and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) (“Real risk of CTE comes from repeated hits to the head, study shows,” Feb. 4). That same day the CTE advocacy group — the Concussion Legacy Foundation — announced a national campaign called F14G Football to convert all under-14 football into flag football, thereby eliminating tackle football.

The message sent to assembled media and onlookers was that eliminating tackle football for youth is the key to safeguarding the brains and futures of America’s youth.

The truth is not so simple.

The scientific evidence linking youth casual sports play to brain injury, brain injury to CTE, and CTE to dementia is not strong. We believe that further scientific research and data are necessary for accurate risk-benefit analysis among policymakers for two reasons.

First, evidence-based science calls for research to be conducted under generally accepted principles. The case series presented by the Boston University group, primarily due to its ascertainment bias, is weaker than the evidentiary standard sufficient to demonstrate an association or causation and conflicts with pathologic findings in other studies.

CTE pathology in the brain has been shown by British pathologists to be present in approximately 12 percent of normal healthy aged people who died at an average age of 81 years (Ling et al. Acta Neuropathologica). The presence of CTE pathology in the brain on autopsy has not been shown to correlate with neurologic symptoms before death.

To be clear, CTE pathology could be present in a normal person.

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Would I Let My Son Play Football?

“Would I let my son play football?”

It’s a question that more and more parents are asking themselves these days. There are some people out there who say, “No way!”

Football is way too violent and should be abolished as a sport. Even some NFL players admit that they would not let their own sons play football. Then there are others, fierce advocates who think football is a wonderful game with tremendous benefits to its participants and think all of the media hype about injuries are just overrated scare tactics and headline grabbers.

But the majority of us are probably somewhere in the middle and aren’t quite sure what to think. So why don’t we spend a little time sifting through all the facts and emotions and see if we can make some logical decisions about the subject. I have an interesting perspective in that I am a sports medicine physician who is a true fan of the game, has played the game, has sustained injuries and has a son of my own.

Thus I can see the argument from all sides. Let’s start with the physician side. My job is taking care of injured athletes. I see patients with fractures, sprains, strains, overuse injuries, head injuries, concussions, trauma, you name it. During the months of August, September, October and November, I probably see more patients than I do for the entire remainder of the year. Why? Football season.

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