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Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy-A Hard end for the hardened sports star

Dr Ross Walker
31 October 2022

The recent untimely and tragic death of the rugby league player and coach, Paul Green was yet another shock for the sporting world. The autopsy results were just released revealing that Paul had severe Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, better known by its acronym CTE.

These findings gave an explanation to the Green family as to why a man with so many achievements in his life including a stellar career in rugby league as a player and coach, a Harvard business degree, a helicopter pilot, a musician, but most importantly a devoted family man, would take his own life when earlier that day he appeared happy and cheerful.

There were no signs of depression which is a typical cause present in a person committing suicide. It was reported by his family that Paul had appeared, at times, somewhat more angry than his usual cheery and relaxed predisposition and this may be one of the signs of CTE.

Recurrent head injuries or even a severe blow to the head may lead to this condition. Many sports people over the years have suffered as a consequence of this condition, arguably the most famous being Muhammad Ali. Mr Ali had a combination of what appeared to be dementia and Parkinson's disease but, in reality, was almost definitely the end effects of CTE.

This condition can manifest as a variety of forms of depression, anxiety, anger and impulsive behavior but, regardless, is a serious condition with serious consequences to the sufferer and their family.

This raises many questions as to the current method in which sport is played and also the current rules around head knocks sustained during sporting activity. There are now calls for heading the ball in soccer to be banned (at least in children) with even some talk about it being banned across-the-board which would totally change the nature of this particular game.

Many parents are concerned about their younger children playing a variety of forms of football and with our increasingly careful society, we will almost certainly see changes over the next few decades.

The only benefit to come out of these tragedies is the ability of medical science to detect these conditions early and with increasing medical technology offer some form of therapy to either prevent, stabilize and possibly even reverse the disease.

My friend and colleague, Dr Adrian Cohen who is the boss of Headsafe has developed a device to assess the severity of concussion in athletes. There is also some preliminary work using medical cannabis as a form of therapy for this condition. With the increasing strides seen in stem cell therapy and other forms of regenerative medicine, at some stage in the relatively near future we may see possibly definitive therapy for this dreadful condition.

The vast majority of society either plays or enjoys watching some form of sport offering so many people hours of enjoyment and passion. Tragically, there are occasional serious consequences involved in this pursuit and, as always, we are forever trying to find the balance between following passions, the thrill of competition and the safety of all people involved.

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