In contact sports like football, head-injuries are often just around the corner. For NFL players, this means facing the possibility of a traumatic brain injury every day they go to work. Often, the initial hit to the head isn’t the most worrisome factor, it’s the effects that occur afterward.
Andre Waters, the former National Football League player for the Pittsburgh Steelers, committed suicide in November of 2007. The reason for his suicide remained a mystery to everyone. However, after a thorough examination of Water’s remains, neurologist Dr. Bennet Omalu believed that Waters had sustained brain damage from playing football. Dr. Omalu specializes in forensic pathology at the University of Pittsburgh. He concluded that Water’s had sustained numerous concussions while playing football, which meant that Water’s brain tissue had declined into a state similar to that of an early-stage Alzheimer’s victim.
But Waters is not alone. Terry Long, yet another former NFL player of the Pittsburgh Steelers, also committed suicide after repeated football-related head injuries. The medical examiner believed that, like Waters, Long’s history of head injuries played a large role in his death. Dr. Omalu, who also examined Andre Waters, concluded that because of Long’s career in football as a lineman, he suffered from chronic encephalopathy, which triggers depression. This disorder, according to Dr. Omalu, is in turn what lead to Long’s suicide. But what is a concussion? What are the repercussions if one or more is sustained? And could there be an answer to the problem of the NFL’s concussion epidemic?
According to the NFL concussion pamphlet, some common concussion symptoms include:
Though the risk of suffering from these symptoms when initially sustaining the injuries of a brain concussion is certainly there, these may be the least of our worries. Many suffer from Post-Concussion Syndrome, which is a set of symptoms resulting from one or more concussions that linger longer than expected- as long as 3-6 months or more. These symptoms are among the ones listed above. Another, perhaps less understood syndrome, is CTE.
CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is found in individuals (particularly in athletes such as NFL football players), with a history of repeated brain injury. CTE is a degenerative brain disease where a protein called Tau forms clumps that spread through the brain, essentially killing brain cells. CTE, when first discovered in 1928 by Dr. Harrison Martland, was referred to as “punch drunk syndrome” in a group of boxers who had suffered concussions. Years later the same can be applied to other contact sports, such as football.
CTE is caused by repeated blows to the head over several years. This typically doesn’t mean a few concussions, but hundreds or more. However, to be at risk for CTE, these do not have to be full concussions but could be a mild impact to the head that results in a sub-concussion. Unfortunately, for now, the only way to accurately diagnose CTE is after death. The brain is studied under a microscope in slices to detect if there are Tau clumps present that would point to CTE. However, there are some things that players can do to help their brain if they suspect they are suffering from CTE or Post-Concussion Syndrome. Brain exercises and therapies, along with some medications, are among a few things that could help those with symptoms of CTE.
One treatment that could prove to be effective for those who are experiencing post-concussion symptoms is CBD oil. CBD, or cannabidiol, is derived from the cannabis plant and is a main ingredient in marijuana, alongside THC. Though THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, can have mind-altering effects, CBD does not.
To better understand the effects of CBD and why it works, we must first understand the brain. Within the brain are numerous, sophisticated cells called neurons. Each neuron connects to what is called synapses. This is how one neuron communicates with another neuron by releasing neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers. If a neuron has a receptor that is compatible with a certain neurotransmitter, then it can “talk” to that particular one. If it does not match, then it typically can’t respond.
The brain produces neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin naturally. But foreign messengers, such as those found in marijuana (plant cannabinoids CBD and THC) can be responded to as well. Once entered into your body, and ultimately your brain, these plant compounds are now allowed to communicate and influence brain activity. But like natural receptors, these only communicate with certain neurons. CBD interacts with different receptors from THC. Therefore, CBD does not give the effect of becoming “high” after use. Interestingly enough, CBD can also affect non-cannabinoid receptors, which include opioid receptors known for pain relief.
Drugs associated with most drug abuse such as pharmaceutical painkillers, morphine, heroin, and fentanyl, are all targeted by opioid receptors. This means that these same painkillers could possibly be replaced with the natural plant-based CBD. CBD is proving to be an effective pain relief for headaches and migraines, which are associated with Post-Concussion Syndrome. Scientists have suggested that using CBD (whether in an oil, cream or edible) is therapeutic. Using CBD as a daily dietary supplement is one way people are taking advantage of its therapeutic properties for headaches.
Sufferers of Post-Concussion Syndrome can also experience mood changes. This includes shifts into anxiety or depression. Animal studies have shown that CBD also stimulates serotonin receptors in the brain, meaning that it could possibly be effective in treating anxiety and depression resulting after a head injury. Research shows that CBD, when administered to newborn rats with brain injuries, has long-term neuroprotection. CBD reduces the amount of brain damage, prevents the impairment of neurological behavior, and mediates stress and swelling in the brain. On top of the positive effects on the brain, the research showed that the neurological protection of CBD was not associated with any adverse side effects. These are mostly animal studies, and more research on CBD needs to be completed to fully understand its effect on the human brain. It does, however, give us greater insight on what CBD can do for the health of human beings.
One retired NFL player, Eugene Monroe, believes that marijuana could help with the pain and after effects caused by concussions. Monroe retired after 18 years in the NFL. Monroe elaborated on this decision to The Players Tribune by stating
The last 18 years have been full of traumatic injuries to both my head and my body. I’m not complaining, just stating a fact. Has the damage to my brain already been done? Do I have CTE? I hope I don’t, but over 90% of the brains of former NFL players that have been examined showed signs of the disease. I am terrified.
CBD is showing real promise as a possible treatment for NFL players suffering from Post-Concussion Syndrome or possibly Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Though the NFL strictly forbids its players to use cannabis, perhaps with the development of CBD oil and the positive results it is showing for concussion injuries, it will soon be allowed medically.
Prior to retirement, Monroe also stated,
Despite the current uncertainties, one thing is for sure: Whatever happens in terms of my professional football career, I will never stop pushing for the League to accept medical cannabis as a viable option for pain management
With hopes for a better medical treatment for many, CBD continues to be studied as an effective option for those suffering from pain, anxiety, and depression due to head injuries. As with any medicinal substance, please consult a physician before use.