Home Health Care How a Football-Loving SLP Views Potential Effects of Repeated Head Injuries

How a Football-Loving SLP Views Potential Effects of Repeated Head Injuries

by Katie Suggs
written by

When I was in high school applying for colleges, I had two criteria for my potential university: strong academics and football. I knew I wanted the camaraderie of a football game day. My older sister, Beth, attended Marshall University during the Randy Moss/Chad Pennington years, and I was fortunate to attend many Thundering Herd home games during her time there.

I chose the University of Tennessee for my undergraduate degree. Saturday game day in the Southeastern Conference with the Vol Navy was even more than I had expected. The power-T and tailgating were even enough to get my parents to make the drive from Williamson, West Virginia, to Knoxville, Tennessee, for home games. For my graduate degree, I decided on Florida State University. There is nothing like seeing Chief Osceola and Renegade throwing the spear into the turf!

After graduate school, I moved on to Carolina Panther football. I was living in Charlotte, and it was the natural progression in my football journey. I came on board during the Jake Delhomme years and was ecstatic when they landed Cam Newton. Needless to say, I’ve spent many Saturday and Sunday afternoons enjoying one of America’s favorite sports.

My outlook on football changed, however, after becoming a speech-language pathologist. I began looking at the brain in a whole new way. After studying brain injuries and seeing their effects during treatment, I found recent articles and studies on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) jarring. Could the game I loved really be causing as much damage as researchers were starting to suggest?

The Concussion Legacy Foundation defines CTE as: “A degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells.”

Like so many other diseases involving the brain, including Alzheimer’s, a definitive diagnosis can be confirmed only upon autopsy.

For nearly a century, physicians and researchers have noted dementia pugilistica—a type of CTE—in boxers. Recently, researchers began understanding the link between repeated head trauma and long-term brain injuries in other sports, including football.

Junior Sau, Joe O’Malley and Ken Stabler—just a few of the names we associate as confirmed cases of CTE. Frank Gifford’s family recently announced discovery of CTE in his brain. Brett Favre publically admitted he can’t remember his daughter participating in sports one entire summer. Even more concerning is a recent study showing 110 of 111 NFL brains donated for research had CTE.

Researchers recently began looking at the link between amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and CTE. Pete Duranko had ALS and CTE. While some debate still exists over Kevin Turner’s ALS diagnosis and his CTE  diagnosis upon autopsy, he, too, showed signs of having both diseases.

Is there a connection? If so, what is the connection? We don’t yet know.

Given that CTE can only be confirmed upon autopsy, how do we catch it early enough to possibly treat it? According to researchers at Arizona State University, we may want to look at conversational language. They “tracked a steeper decline in vocabulary size and other verbal skills in 10 players who spoke at news conferences over an eight-year period, compared with 18 coaches and executives who never played professional football and who also spoke in news conferences during the same period.” Like so many other illnesses, changes in language are often the first signs of a problem.

As SLPs, we are in the unique position of possibly being on the front lines for providing early treatment for CTE. Our knowledge of language development, vocabulary usage and conversational language places us, once again, in a key position to help others.

I’m certainly not suggesting every football player will get CTE—or ALS for that matter. Enough evidence exists, however, for me to consider CTE in a patient with repeated head trauma who presents with short-term memory issues, behavioral changes and language difficulties.

Does the girl who picked her colleges based on football still watch the sport? I do … but differently. Every head hit makes me shudder as I now wonder about the potential damage it causes. Just as I know not every person who smokes gets cancer, not everyone who plays football will get CTE. But I do worry about long-term damage in some players.

Katie Conn Suggs, MS, CCC-SLP, serves as a lead speech-language pathologist in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, school district. She also founded a private practice, The Speech Carrotkatie@speechcarrot.com

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7 comments

Joy October 12, 2017 - 12:21 pm

Great article! (I am a huge football fan AND I went to Marshall and UT! Kelly green and flame orange are quite a combination to have in one’s closet : )) I remember my first game at Neyland thinking I had never really “experienced” game day until I moved to Knoxville!) But I, too, think so much differently about the sport now. I see a hit (especially a targeting hit)) and immediately imagine the damage that could ensue. I think it’s just who we are, but I totally understand looking at the game in a different way.

Katie Suggs October 12, 2017 - 7:39 pm

Joy, thank you so much for your kind words! Go Herd and go Vols! Great minds! I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in my concern about the game we all love. Thank you for taking the time to read my article and comment. Hugs to you!

Laura Collins October 14, 2017 - 10:26 pm

As I sit here watching the Gators and A&M play tonight , I read your very informative blog. I was drawn to your writing because you and I would tie for the biggest Vol fans ( even though this year is definitely a disappointment). I, too, have become very interested in this. I am working with many kiddos from ages 8-16 who are playing football and some have received concussions. It has been a tough decision for these parents to allow their sons to continue palying the game. Our own son was a kicker and we were fortunate that when he was illegally hit that he didn’t receive a concussion. I continue to be alert for changes in my clients language skills.
Thank you for your continued love of our profession to make a difference in the lives of others.

Katie Suggs October 19, 2017 - 7:53 pm

Thank you so much for your kind words, Laura Collins, and go Vols!

Brenna Hughes October 18, 2017 - 2:24 am

Love this thank you for sharing! This a huge area of passion for me and it is a major epidemic in Central California! And I’m so glad that this issue of CTE in the NFL has brought a lot of brain injury awareness into the spot light; we have such a huge role here as SLPs, not only with sports, but thinking about any setting in which our patients/clients are in high risk environments to hit their heads, not once, but repeatedly, in: domestic violence situations, gang fights, skateboarding and motor cross, rural injuries—ATV accidents and falls from horses. I would love to see even more SLPs out there proactively educating teachers, doctors, the judicial system professionals, victims advocates groups, school psychologists and nurses about brain injury.

Katie Suggs October 19, 2017 - 7:54 pm

Brenna Hughes, thank you for reading my article and for your very kind comments. I, too, would love to see more SLPs talking about this issue and educating others. I think we have an obligation at this point.

Jenai January 7, 2018 - 10:57 am

Hi Katie: This was a great article. I have been an SLP for 5 years and one of my goals is to work with NFL players, both current and former. Like you, I am huge football fan (NY Giants). And that’s why people originally thought I wanted to work with football players. Until I saw the story on former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason. That is when I realized that my desire was not for selfish reasons. And your article was a great first step in the right direction. Thank you. GOD bless.

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