Brain Pain: Addressing Head Injuries in Sports Worldwide

In a world where hits and falls are harder than ever before, players are returning to the fields with concussions, at the detriment of their long-term health.

Topics:  Health  Culture  Skill Point: Phrasal Verbs

It’s no secret that a career in athletics often comes with a myriad of injuries – many of which end careers. Current research is focused on more serious long-term complications off the field, resulting from one of the most common injuries in high-impact sports: concussions. It’s not just the dizziness, nausea, memory loss, or disorientation that doctors are worried about; the more serious concern is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disease caused by multiple concussions and head injuries. CTE was once called Boxer’s Disease, but is now commonly found in professional athletes playing ice hockey, rugby, American football, wrestling, and other contact sports.

With traumatic injuries like this on the tip of sports announcers’ tongues, you’d think players, coaches, and trainers would take CTE more seriously. In 2013, an Irish rugby player named Brian O’Driscoll took a hard hit in the Six Nations tournament, leaving him feeling disoriented and dizzy. He was escorted off the field. Just a few minutes later, he returned to the game, still concussed, with his head wrapped in bandages. In October of 2010, a 17-year-old high school (American) football player, Nathan Stiles, died after his homecoming football game where he took one hard hit after a series of concussive hits throughout the season. In 2012, two former NFL players committed suicide, and both autopsy reports confirmed CTE. And in soccer, those who frequently head the ball were found to have brain abnormalities similar to those found in concussed patients.

American Football is no stranger to concussions. For a long time, NFL players’ concussions were ignored so frequently that the NFL recently agreed on a $765 million settlement for a class-action lawsuit brought by NFL players regarding dangers of concussions. It’s taken 20 years, but the NFL is now forced to take these concussions seriously. They’re doing so by changing the rules of the game, giving more severe penalties to certain types of hits, and disallowing some of the more aggressive hits altogether.  The NFL has also teamed up with the National Institute of Health (NIH) to learn more about the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries.

The prevalence of CTE among professional athletes is raising concern for parents of youth athletes as well, garnering attention from the U.S. government. The United States President, Barack Obama, is hosting the first-ever White House summit to address these growing concerns over head injuries in sports, particularly for youths, in an effort to improve sports’ safety measures for coming generations.

But when it comes to the rest of the world, not enough attention is being placed on the risks of concussions in sports such as soccer and rugby. According to The Rugby Football Union, there were 6.7 concussions per every 1000 hours played last season, but many doctors and players believe the real number of concussions to be double or even triple what’s reported. While the NFL can afford hundreds of billions to keep former players happy, rugby clubs can’t afford to pay settlement fees in the millions; they’d go bankrupt.

Many doctors and professionals are calling for safety measures such as the Zurich guidelines to be more exhaustive, and to be required rather than recommended in order to protect the players. Though the changes to rules in NFL might seem minor, at least they’re a step in the right direction.

Reading Questions

Writing Prompt

INTERMEDIATE: In 200 words give your opinion on this article, and answer the following questions. Do you think the possibility if CTE should be taken seriously, or is it just “part of the job?” Knowing this, would you want your children to play hard contact sports?

ADVANCED: A lot of attention is being paid to this issue of head injuries in sports, but we’re still looking for solutions. Choose one or more contact sports (ice hockey, American football, soccer, or rugby) and explain what you would change to improve this problem and reduce the risks of concussions and CTE.

The Future of Science: Artificial Blood To Be Manufactured in Laboratories

Blood donation services have trouble meeting worldwide blood needs. Manufacturing artificial blood from stem cells might be the answer.

Topics:  Health  Lifestyle  Skill Point: Although, But

After dozens of stories of successful 3D-printed skin grafts, bones, and prosthetics, scientists have unveiled the latest in bioengineering technology. Using the stem cells from embryos or adult tissue, scientists can process these cells in a laboratory to produce large numbers of cells, and eventually manufacture blood on a large scale.

Although the concept has been around for quite some time, scientists and researchers are only now seeing real progress. The Wellcome Trust, a UK-based global charitable foundation, is funding the research team, but the benefits of these advancements would stretch far beyond the UK. For example, 150,000 women around the world die each year as a result of blood loss during childbirth. With manufactured blood, most or all of those women could be saved.

Donated blood must go through a rigorous testing process to ensure there is zero risk of contamination, and even then, human error can allow things to go awry with improper screening of individuals, or poor handling or storing. Manufactured blood has the benefit of being completely infection-free.

Blood donors are able to donate blood every 84 days, but most who donate blood do so less than once a year (often for specific blood drives at work or school). Individuals who are experiencing any abnormal health symptoms, anemia, or have had potential exposure to communicable diseases are ineligible. This leaves less than 40% of Americans eligible to donate blood, and less than 5% of them actually do so. According to the American Red Cross, more than 41,000 blood donations are needed each day under normal circumstances.

With lives becoming busier and worldwide needs for blood growing larger, it’s no surprise that scientists are working hard to find a manufactured solution. The basic process begins with the stem cells from embryos, which are young enough that they can make any tissue in the body. Over the course of 35 days, scientists implement growth factors like cytokines to signal the cells to become red blood cells, rather than say white blood cells or even skin cells.  The hardest part is not coaxing the cells to become O-negative red blood cells, but in finding a way to get the cells to proliferate at a rapid pace in order to meet worldwide needs. Right now, the world needs about 2 million bags of blood per year.

The process is complex and volatile, but once established, can have lasting effects in producing a variety of new cells, such as nerve cells or heart cells for victims of strokes or heart attacks. Professor Mark Turner, member of the research team, expects it will be another 5-10 years before the manufactured blood is ready for routine clinical use. According to The Wellcome Trust, the very first blood transfusions using the cultured red blood cells are scheduled to take place with volunteers in 2016.

Reading Questions

Writing Prompt

INTERMEDIATE: What do you think of manufactured blood? Does it sounds like something you would be willing to support, or do you see problems? In 200 words, explain the pros and cons (in your opinion and using information from the article) of using manufactured blood.

ADVANCED: According to the pros listed in this article, what demographics (groups) of people do you think will benefit most from the manufacturing of artificial blood? Do you see anyone who will be negatively affected by this process?