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Traumatic Brain Injury & Sleep Apnea

Posted Sep 13 2010 6:43pm

Here’s a tragic story of Owen Thomas, a talented University of Pennsylvania football lineman that recently committed suicide. An autopsy revealed early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder that’s typically seen in football players who suffer repeated head trauma. Typically, findings are similar to what’s seen in Alzheimer’s disease, with neurofibrilary tangels and amyloid plaques. The surprising thing about Thomas’ condition was his age—he was only 21.

Former Tampa Bay Bucaneer Tom McHale died at age 45 of CTE last year. McHale was the 6th former NFL player to be discovered post-mortem to have CTE since 2002. If you add to these findings that football player in general (especially linemen) have a much higher incidence of obstructive sleep apnea, this could explain the high incidence of degenerative brain disease in football players.

It’s a given that you’ll hit your head repeatedly while playing football. Having played football and and rugby in school, I’ve taken a number of hits to the head myself.

The human brain has an amazing ability to heal and regenerate, but when place in adverse conditions, scarring and inflammation occurs. It’s been proven that chronic intermittent hypoxia (from obstructive sleep apnea) causes major brain damage in critical areas of the brain, including parts that are responsible for memory, executive function, motor skills, and autonomic function. Hypoxia can also induce amyloid plaques to build up in brain tissues. Damage to the brain, in the presence of hypoxia, can only lead to bad things.

I realize all this is pure speculation, but is there justification for routine screening for obstructive sleep apnea in all football players? I’d like to hear your opinion about this.

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