NFL lawsuit brings issue of traumatic brain injury front and center

Football players in the National Football League (NFL) are generally thought of as tough, determined to win at all costs, larger than life and even super-human. Nonetheless, they get hurt at an alarming rate. Many injuries befalling NFL players are relatively minor ones like broken bones, sprains, muscle strains, joint dislocations and bruising, all things that are painful but will likely heal over time. Other injuries, however, are much more serious and harder to heal because they involve trauma to the brain.

What is traumatic brain injury?

The human brain is a very complex piece of biological machinery, and any damage to it - even if it seemed minor at the time - can having lasting effects. A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is just that: an injury that involves some form of trauma to the brain. Trauma to the brain can occur whenever there is a blow to the head like in a car accident, fall or assault as the brain "bounces" around inside the skull. They can also be caused when something like a weapon, tool or bullet pierces the cranial bones and directly damages brain tissue. Repeated mild trauma to the brain, even less severe than a concussion, can lead to permanent brain damage.

Athletes' brain injuries often harder to detect

For professional athletes, trauma often comes in the form of blows from a fellow boxer's gloves, an errant elbow that impacts a defensive player's head under the hoop, a solid tackle from the opposing team on the gridiron or a base-line collision. A direct blow is not required, as even shoulder-to-shoulder contact can cause brain trauma. These injuries happen to healthy, muscular, tough men and women who often don't want to admit they are injured out of some misplaced sense of pride. They want to "play through the pain," because they fear they could somehow look weak or be overtaken by a rival.

Athletes at the professional level may only play in the "big leagues" for a few years, but they could easily incur tens of thousands of hits on the field. Each one of those comes with a risk for concussion or another form of traumatic head injury, but until recently those types of closed head injuries have been difficult to detect, and it has been nearly impossible in the past to see a connection between long-term brain damage and a pattern of injury.

The problem has become so widespread now, though, that a massive lawsuit - involving thousands of former players and their families - has recently been filed against the NFL. One disorder that has been documented in former players is a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. That disorder causes serious symptoms including confusion, disorientation, memory loss, agitation, depression, impaired judgment and it eventually leads to dementia.

Are you at risk?

If you are a former football player - or other professional athlete - with a history of brain injuries, you need to take steps to both treat any conditions that may have arisen and to protect your legal rights. You also need to be aware of the interplay between personal injuries on the job and the workers' compensation benefit system, which may be a factor. Injured retired professional football players, for example, may have a workers' compensation claim against their former employers (the team(s) they played for) as well as a possible civil lawsuit against the NFL and the helmet manufacturer. Consult an experienced personal injury attorney in your area to learn more about legal options you may have to recover compensation for your injuries.