head trauma in athletes

Head Trauma In Athletes: Should We Start Rethinking Careers In Contact Sports?

Head trauma in athletes has been known as a possible consequence of taking part in contact sports for a long time, but recent research has shown that the damage done to the brain may be much worse than previously realized. Given this new understanding, is it time to rethink a career in contact sports?

It’s one of the saddest sights in sport to see a former world-class athlete struggling with traumatic brain injury. There are some athletes who just can’t seem to see the signs and bow out gracefully. Had it not been for a torn ACL, former UFC Welterweight Champion George St. Pierre would be returning to the cage, long after he’d admitted to problems with memory loss and periods of lost time. St. Pierre is just one example among many.

It’s easy to see why they try to prolong their careers. They’ve worked hard to get where they are and are reaping the financial rewards of their success. The same qualities that made them top athletes also makes them want to keep being top athletes until they are forced to retire. It’s also the case that many athletes are from underprivileged backgrounds and may not be suited to any other career. If an athlete with no other viable career prospects has financial commitments, they may feel as though they have no choice but to keep going.

So what are the known conditions associated with contact sports?

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

First, let’s talk about mild TBI. Despite the name; “mild” TBI can have very serious consequences. Research has shown that mild TBI may be a major factor when it comes to combat veterans experiencing PTSD. It can have many mood altering symptoms. People with mild TBI frequently experience depression. Men with TBI also typically experience lower testosterone levels, which may have a huge impact on an athlete’s ability to compete, risking even further injury. People with mild TBI may also experience memory loss, attention deficit, headaches, mood swings and difficulty problem solving.

Severe TBI

Severe TBI can be devastating. This is what many people know as “punch drunk”. A person with severe TBI may experience slurred speech, difficulty with motor function and may need long-term rehabilitation and care to live a normal life. Severe TBI can be as bad as Alzheimer’s, only rather than taking decades it can happen within a short career in contacts sports. In the worst case scenario, an individual can experience paralysis, a serious degenerative brain condition and even death.


Kansas City Chief’s linebacker Jovan Belcher’s autopsy has revealed that he had signs of the degenerative brain disease CTE at the time of his suicide (and the murder of his girlfriend) at the age of just 22. The disease is characterized as a progressive death of brain cells due to head trauma. Tangles of tau protein were found throughout Belcher’s hippocampus. We can’t touch on this topic without mentioning the bizarre case of  Junior Seau. Chris Borland, another NFL star for the 49ers, has taken the decision to retire at just 24, it may be that he is experiencing the same condition.

Hypoxic Brain Injury

This is when the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen and cannot make use of glucose as a result of cerebral anoxia. When cerebral anoxia occurs the individual can lose consciousness within 15 seconds and experience irreversible hypoxic brain injury as a result. This is type of damage can be experienced by someone who has been choked-out with a rear-naked-choke in MMA, and those who are knocked out.

Lactate Build-up Through Rigorous Exercise .

Though glucose is thought of as the main source of energy for the brain, recent research has shown the neurons of mammalian species preferentially metabolises lactate, not glucose during physical activity. The lactate goes into the neurons and into the mitochondria to give the brain energy. However, a build-up of lactate can cause Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, even in young people.

The are also numerous other conditions connected to these types of brain injuries. A possible side effect worth mentioning is a loss of energy, when your brain is in a constant state of repair, your body is having to provide energy for your brain to recover. This may cause your body to lose energy elsewhere. This may mean that normal activity may become difficult, if not impossible.

So, how does brain injury happen and can it be prevented?

The simple answer is the only way to avoid brain injury is to avoid contact sports altogether. However careful one may be, there’s no sure fire way to come out of a career in contact sports totally unscathed. The biggest factor for most is the taking of repeated blows to the head. Head trauma can also occur if someone is frequently tacked to the ground. If you’re someone who is experiencing this on a regular basis, you should definitely consider not pursuing a career in contact sports. Although the scrappy boxer that shows a lot of heart to comeback from a knockdown may be a sporting legend, and may be very entertaining to watch, the damage that’s going on inside his brain is almost incalculable. Nobody thinks brain injury is going to happen to them until it does and when it does it’s often irreversible and your life-outcome may be drastically altered for the worse.

The only way to mitigate the damage outside of not competing; is to know when to quit. That includes knowing when to give yourself time away from the sport as well as knowing when to give up entirely. It’s a very serious issue, one only has to look at recent suicides in the NFL to realize just how serious it is.

Anyone who’s thinking of a career in contact sports should ensure they have a back-up plan, something to fall back on should their plans go awry. Don’t be the guy (or girl) competing for far too long because they don’t know how to do anything else, and definitely don’t be the guy fighting in unlicensed MMA bouts without a doctor on standby and any hope of making a good living out of sport.

Whatever you decide, educate yourself and make sure you fully know the risks before making any decisions which could ruin lives, not only your own, but the lives of people who may be relying on you to stay healthy.

Also, if you’re going to compete, spare no expense & wear the best protective equipment (custom mouthguards and helmets especially)

If you’re still set on a career in sport, heed the words of Chris Borland “I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”

He is one of the few people who knew when to get out.


Ashely Notarmaso

Ashely Notarmaso is the author behind the Sentinel Mouth Guard Blog. She is the CEO and founder of Sentinel Mouth Guards, LLC. (Founded in 2012) and has over a decade of experience in the dental field. She has worked as a laboratory technician in several dental laboratories and dental offices in the US. She has written over 70 highly regarded articles on all things mouth guard related. Ashelys long-time work in the dental mouth guard arena and her excellent ability to listen to customer concerns in this often contradictory field has laid the groundwork to explore night guard/mouth guard fabrication in-depth and address real concerns. With the help of her team, she has created a unique fabrication method that promises a great fitting custom oral appliance every time. Amazon’s choice for #1 mouth guard! Visit the online store http://sentinelmouthguards.com

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