LONDON (Reuters) - The media hype around the issue of concussion in sport is “way ahead of the science”, a leading doctor told Reuters at an annual National Football League (NFL) conference on Saturday.
The issue of concussions and head trauma has become an increasingly controversial topic in a number of sports in recent years, with many governing bodies changing rules and protocols to better ensure player safety.
Dr. Michael Turner, medical director of the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation (ICHIRF), believes the science behind concussion is now playing catch-up to the media debate around the issue.
“The media hype is way ahead of the science,” he told Reuters at the NFL’s second annual professional sports concussion conference in London.
“Normally what happens is we painstakingly move forward and we produce the science at the end of it and public and media interest starts to pick up. With this it has been quite the opposite ...
“We are now doing a lot of research in a lot of different sports to see whether any of the suggestions that have been rather hyped up in the media, particularly in America, can be substantiated.”
The suicides of former NFL players Dave Duerson in 2011 and Junior Seau a year later intensified the debate around concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The NFL in April settled a lawsuit brought by about 5,000 former players who accused it of covering up the dangers of concussions in a deal that could cost the league $1 billion.
Several leading scientific and medical experts from multiple sports attended the NFL think tank ahead of Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars at London’s Wembley Stadium.
One initiative to come out of it was a partnership between the NFL and Dr. Turner’s ICHIRF.
The two bodies are set to fund further investigation into the potential long-term effects and risk factors associated with concussion in sports.
The study, which is due to launch in January, will be led by Dr. Turner, a former chief medical officer of the British Horseracing Authority, and will focus on the link between concussion and CTE in retired jockeys.
“Concussion is very common in horse racing, particularly jump jockeys,” he said.
“By my estimation and from information we have got from various charities involved in racing, they don’t seem to be coming to a great deal of problems, having lots of concussions.”
On the back of the scientific research currently available, Dr. Turner said it was difficult to make definitive claims about the link between concussion and mental health.
“We anticipate that like most things, it is not going to be all or nothing, that everybody who has concussion will end up being depressed or suicidal. But there will be some, or a number of people, who are at risk if you hit your head with regularity of ending up with some long-term damage,” he said.
“The difficulty with depression is that it is very common.
“Also when athletes retire they are at a very critical period in their lives. Prior to that they were well-known they might have been famous and earning quite a lot of money and suddenly, they have very little status, nobody knows who they are, they don’t have somewhere to go to work and I think that transition can be badly handled by lots of sports.
“That is one of the issues that this particular conference reiterated again and again and again that there is an undercurrent of mental health issues that are related to everybody in society.”
Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the Co-Chairman of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, added that they had discussed at the conference whether there may be a connection between pre-existing mood disorders and the long-term affects of athletes who have suffered concussion.
“You never hear that discussion among professional athletes or student athletes when they have finished competing and what we find out is that people who have pre-injury had mood disorders or depression do worse than those who don’t,” he told Reuters.
“So how that all interplays is really important. This is the first time I have heard it discussed in a meeting that all these scientists are thinking about that thing. It was almost a taboo subject.”
Editing by Frank Pingue