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ADVANCE Perspective: Nurses

Did Lou Gehrig Actually Have Lou Gehrig's Disease?

Published August 17, 2010 3:14 PM by Stacey Miller
In recent years, neuropathologists have linked early onset dementia, severe bouts of depression and amnesia in former professional football players to repeated concussions sustained during their careers in the NFL.

Now, a new study in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology to be released Aug. 18, has found a new connection. Former NFL players who reportedly had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, may have actually died from motor-neuron degeneration as a result of repeated concussions.

Autopsy results in three NFL players who were diagnosed with ALS "revealed a different disorder with different markings, specifically high levels of two protein abnormalities in the spinal cord that compromise nerve function," according to a New York Times article on the study.

Gehrig, a first baseman for the New York Yankees from 1923-39, is well-known for never missing a game (he played 2,130 games) and for taking hits to the head (a time before baseball helmets). Therefore, the Boston-area study authors (including Chris Nowinski, former professional wrestler and concussion-awareness advocate) suggest Gehrig may not have had the disease that bears his name, after all. It's impossible to prove, though, since Gehrig was cremated when he died in 1941.

Despite this mounting evidence that not properly treating concussions rest is best — can cause life-threatening damage, the NFL has done little to protect its players. Only last month, the league began hanging posters in locker rooms describing the dangers of concussions and insisting players get cleared by independent physicians, not team doctors, to continue playing after a head injury. Yet, already during pre-season games, attitudes toward concussions haven't changed.    

The National Hockey League also tightened its rules this year to protect players from head injuries. Stricter penalties against hockey players who deliver the illegal hits will likely lead to a reduction of head injuries and concussions against their opponents.

On the other hand, football players don't have tangible advantages to report and get treated for concussions, aside from protecting their own health.

Reaching out to current professional sports players is vital, but what about educating young players? Are you seeing high-school athletes with concussions take head injuries seriously? What do you think could be done to protect the next generation of football players?

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