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Brace for impact: Athletes wrestle with concussions

  • Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa has seen his share of painful hits to the head, including one that floored him Tuesday against Vancouver.
Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa has seen his share of painful hits to the… (Rob Grabowski/US Presswire )
February 21, 2013|By Leonor Vivanco | RedEye

Hard hits make sports fans gasp and flinch, but they're far tougher on the players.

In April, fans watched in shock as Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa was knocked off his feet, strapped to a stretcher, carted off the ice and taken to the emergency room during the playoffs.

On Tuesday, the Hawks felt déjà vu as Hossa left the ice after another head injury. This time, a Vancouver player leveled him with a forearm to the back of the head.

Such forceful hits sidelined other Chicago athletes last year with concussions. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had to leave a game in November with a concussion, and had to sit out the next game. Head injuries also forced Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews to miss two months of last season and Bears receiver Earl Bennett to sit out two games.

With as many as 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions reported annually in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's no wonder so much attention has been paid to head injuries.

Head trauma especially has become top of mind in football and hockey; experts say those sports carry the highest risk of concussions.

Pushing the issue beyond sports venues is recent medical research on brain trauma, numerous concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL, and comments made by President Obama that he'd have to think "long and hard" before letting his son—if he had one—play football.

"The concussion is a dangerous thing," Hossa said last week. He wasn't cleared by doctors to play until mid-November.

"We have to be smart," he said. "We have to be more—how would I describe it?—respectful to each other on the ice, don't go crazy in terms of hits."

Case in point: the hit Hossa absorbed by Vancouver's Jannik Hansen on Tuesday. The Hawks forward's back was turned when Hansen floored him.

Concussion symptoms include headaches, dizziness and loss of consciousness. The signs can be subtle, immediate or delayed and last for days or months. Repetitive head trauma, which could be concussions or subconcussive blows, can lead to the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Experts say CTE is linked to memory loss, depression and dementia.

"CTE is important and we need to keep doing research and figure that out. We still have to take concussions themselves seriously because they're potentially devastating," said Dr. Jeff Mjaanes, director of the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic at Rush University Medical Center.

There definitely are more cases of concussions now than in past years, he said, due to a combination of possible factors. Among them could be that more are being diagnosed, more forceful collisions in sports, and a greater awareness of concussions.

But the number of reported CTE cases is small when compared with the millions who play contact sports, Mjaanes said.

What's become alarming is athletes who have committed suicide were later found to have had the brain disease.

Former Bears player Dave Duerson killed himself two years ago this month by shooting himself in the chest. He left a note requesting that his brain be donated for research, and his brain tissue showed evidence of CTE. In May 2012, former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. His brain tissue also had CTE.

Medical researchers still are looking for connections, such as a genetic predisposition to CTE.

"We have to keep doing research in the area, find out which players are at risk and better ways to detect this while people are still alive rather than from an autopsy," Mjaanes said.

A small preliminary UCLA study published last month in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry showed brain scans of five living retired football players who had suffered concussions. Researchers detected traces of the abnormal protein called tau, which is known to be a sign of CTE.

The latest development begs the question: What would athletes do if research could show whether they were developing CTE?

"I would want to know so you can plan for the future and get the help that you need to make sure you stay on top of things," Bennett said earlier this month at an unrelated event at the Boys & Girls Club in Logan Square. "Of course it would make you re-evaluate if you wanted to continue to play because that's your livelihood, and I have children who I want to watch grow up. It would definitely put things in perspective."

This past NFL season, 170 players were listed on injury reports with a concussion or head injury, according to Frontline and ESPN Concussion Watch. And at least a handful of hockey players reportedly have sustained a concussion or head injury, or showed concussion-like symptoms one month into the 2013 NHL season.

Even after getting a concussion, Hossa said last week he doesn't let fear of another injury get to him.

"I cannot be worried because otherwise I wouldn't be playing my game right," he said.

Whether they're driven by the fear of losing their job, passion for the game or some combination of the two, many players choose to accept the risks of the sport.

"This is what we want to do. That is the thing we know how to do it and we were dreaming to do when we were young kids," Hossa said. "Everybody wants to do what they're best in and this is what we're best in and it's worth it. But also we want to get rid of those nasty plays."

lvivanco@tribune.com | @lvivanco

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