HealthZette

Too Many Head Cases?

Innovations in sports concussion treatment

At age 24, Chris Borland was an American pro sports success story.

An undersized but overachieving linebacker in his first season with the San Francisco 49ers, Borland earned the respect of teammates, fans and opponents with his hard-nosed play. A third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin, he was named NFL Rookie of the Month in November 2014.

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In December 2014, Borland suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Three months later, his pro-football career was over.

Borland shocked his team and stunned the NFL when he chose to walk away from the game, citing concerns over head trauma inherent in the violent nature of the sport.

A year and a half earlier, in October 2013, Random House published the best-selling book “League of Denial,” an in-depth expose of the concussion crisis among scores of former NFL players. Co-authors and brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada detailed the league’s drawn-out resistance to medical statistics showing a concussion-related health epidemic among ex-players.

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Borland read the book during his one season in the NFL, “and then he contacted us after the season, and he wanted to speak with some of the researchers quoted in the book,” Steve Fainaru told LifeZette.

The breakthrough laser therapy reaches the brain cells at the mitochondrial level and activates the healing processes within the cell.

“I think he was doing a lot of research on his own,” Fainaru said, “and our book was part of that research.”

Shortly after speaking with one of the concussion specialists Fainaru put him in contact with, Borland retired. The announcement sent a shockwave of questions and criticism throughout the NFL nation. Fans, teammates and officials had to respect the decision, but nobody really wanted to face the ugly truth about violence in the game.

“As far as he was concerned, the risk was too great to keep playing,” Fainaru said, based on interviews Borland did with the brothers for a follow-up article published in the August edition of ESPN the Magazine.

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If retirement was Borland’s proactive stance against sports-related brain injury, it may already be several steps too late.

Protective measures against concussions have become more of a priority in professional and amateur contact sports leagues. Improvements in equipment and brain injury diagnoses continue to evolve. In the NFL, players are not allowed to play for one or more games after suffering a concussion and are only able to return to the field after receiving a certified medical clearance.

A pilot program adopted this season by four teams in the Canadian Football League , with financial support from the NFL, uses a decades-old eye test to quickly determine if a player has suffered a concussion.

The King-Devick test was developed in the 1970s to determine reading dysfunction through eye movement. Researchers have now found the principles of the test can be applied to brain injury when compared to baseline data before a concussion.

Dr. David Dodick, a neurologist and concussion specialist at the Mayo Clinic Arizona, said several recent studies show the examination to be highly accurate in screening for brain injury.

“To have an objective and reliable test, we felt it was very important,” Dodick said of the sideline examination. “We saw the potential to make a huge difference in increasing the likelihood of identifying concussion on the sidelines.”

For the uncounted many — former players, military veterans, and accident victims who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries — the research is more vital. Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Namath credits hyperbaric oxygen treatment with improving his concussion-related symptoms. The former New York Jets star lent his considerable name recognition to the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center in Jupiter, Florida.

The therapy increases oxygenated blood to brain cells that may be damaged or atrophied. After several treatments, Namath said he has seen a tremendous improvement in his own cognitive function.

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“My thinking is much clearer,” the 72-year old former quarterback said. “Finding the right words has been easier, and I remember events with more clarity. One of the really great results is my sleep has improved. I sleep more soundly and have vivid dreams.”

Although the hyperbaric therapy is only in the trial stage, Dr. Theodore Henderson, of the Neuro-Laser Foundation in Lakewood, Colorado, endorses the oxygen treatment alongside a developing laser-based solution to repair brain-cell damage.

“In a nutshell, the laser therapy reaches the brain cells at the mitochondrial level and activates the healing processes within the cell,” Henderson told LifeZette.

He said 10 test patients, and 25 more since the trial phase, showed significant improvement in cognitive function, sleep problems and depression symptoms.