From University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
New UNC center plans intensive studies of retired athletes suffering disabilities
CHAPEL HILL - More than 61 percent of retired professional football players suffered concussions during their playing days, a national survey of players shows. Of those injured by hard blows to the head, 30 percent sustained three or more concussions, 15 percent five or more and 73 percent reported never having been restricted from play following the head trauma.
The National Football League Players Association and Dr. Julian Bailes, chair of neurosurgery at West Virginia University School of Medicine, conducted the poll between 1996 and 1997 and received responses from 1,094 ex-athletes, said Dr. Keven Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who recently re-analyzed responses to develop new data. Retired players ranged in age from 27 to 86 when asked about past injuries.
Guskiewicz, research director of UNC's new Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, and other experts have begun working closely with the players association to reduce debilitating injuries among athletes and lifelong disabilities.
"This is interesting data, some of it not yet published, that we are planning to update with a new, more rigorous scientific survey by May 25," said Guskiewicz, also director of the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory at UNC. "Hundreds of athletes retire every year, many of whom were forced to abuse their bodies throughout a career that likely caused them to play injured on occasion. Many of these individuals have aged physically and mentally well beyond what is expected for a person in mid-life. Many are now left questioning how fortunate they were to have played the sport."
Other findings from the re-analysis were that 47 percent of respondents who played football between one and nine years were concussed at least once and more than two-thirds of those who played 20 or more years were injured that way.
"More than 51 percent of those responding had been knocked unconscious at least once, and almost 10 percent had more than five episodes," Guskiewicz said. "One in five were never told they had suffered a concussion."
Of those who lost consciousness while playing in the 1940s, 87 percent were not restricted from play then, and among those active in the 1980s, 52 percent were not kept from playing, he said. Seventy-four percent of quarterbacks, 70 percent of defensive backs, 68 percent of linebackers and 64 percent of both wide receivers and tight ends suffered at least one concussion.
Eight of the 1,094 former players were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, Guskiewicz said. Six of those had histories of either concussion or loss of consciousness. Four were reported to have had the incurable, progressive condition before they reached age 60.
"Twenty-eight percent of the men reported neck or cervical spine arthritis, 49 percent had numbness or tingling, 36 percent endured hearing problems or dizziness and 31 percent reported difficulty with memory," he said. "Percentages of players saying they were stiff, weak in the arms and legs, had difficulty walking or suffered headaches were 29, 21, 20 and 18, respectively."
Sixteen percent were unable to dress themselves, 12 percent were incontinent of bowel or bladder and 11 percent reported being unable to feed themselves.
This month the new and more scientifically designed survey will go to 3,600 retired National Football League players, Guskiewicz said. That will be the center 's first major initiative and will be followed eventually with a host of studies, including detailed medical examinations of former players.
"Part of the survey will include a standardized health questionnaire so that we can compare our findings to national data to see how the retired athletes differ from the general population," he said. "Our overall goals will be to find out what happens to professional and other top athletes and, over time, to try to lessen whatever negative impacts playing has on their health and quality of life."
The UNC Center for the Study of Retired Athletes grew out of Guskiewicz's previous work on concussions and through talks with Bailes, the center's medical director.
"Besides being interested in the long-term effects of concussion, we have two other branches, one related to orthopedic injury, arthritis and degenerative joint diseases and another that deals with cardiovascular disease, fitness and nutritional issues," Guskiewicz said. "We're not only focusing on professional athletes, but on amateurs and college athletes as well."
Dr. Michael McCrea, director of the neuropsychological service at Wakeshau Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin, is collaborating in the research.
Others, all at UNC, include Drs. William Garrett, professor and chair of orthopaedics; Tim Taft, professor of orthopaedics and director of sports medicine; Leigh F. Callahan, research associate professor of medicine; Beth Jonas, clinical assistant professor of orthopaedics; and Thomas R. Griggs, professor of medicine.Drs. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of exercise and sport science; Stephen Marshall, research associate professor of epidemiology, Donald Kirkendall, clinical assistant professor of orthopaedics; and Anthony Hackney, professor of exercise and sport science, also are participating. Guskiewicz's research attracted national attention last year when he reported that football players who suffered a concussion were three times more likely than other players to have a second concussion during the same season. UNC, the West Virginia School of Medicine and the NFL Players Association are funding the new center initially, but other organizations likely will follow.
Note: Guskiewicz can be reached at 919-962-5175 (w), 306-5843 (cell) or 932-1429 (h).
By David Williamson
UNC News Services