Illustration by Alex Nash

LC athletes may be at risk for neurodegenerative disease

As described by Mayo Clinic, chronic  traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), is the brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas. Research surrounding this disease is limited because it can only be diagnosed postmortem. While the research suggests a connection between repeated subconcussive hits which are hits that do not show symptoms there is no answer as to why these repeated hits cause CTE. 

Director of Physical Education & Athletics Mark Pietrok was the Director of Sports Medicine for Lewis & Clark for 30 years. Pietrok has followed CTE in medical journals, participated in CTE preventative training and attended a talk by the top researchers on CTE at Boston University (BU). 

“There is definitely anecdotal evidence out there that repetitive head injuries might have some causal effect on CTE,” Pietrok said. “(It) hasn’t been proven yet, but the top head scientists think that there might be a possibility. So in my mind, I think it’s our job to make our student athletes aware of these potential issues. I am in the camp that this is a potential issue; something that we’re seeing, trying to understand it better and make our students aware of. But do I tell them repeated head trauma is going to give you CTE? No.”

Matt Casson ’23 has been playing tackle football since he was 12 and now plays as left offensive guard for LC. During his football career Casson has torn his MCL in his left knee, tore his meniscus in his right knee, ruptured a ligament in his thumb and suffered one concussion. 

“I have known the risks of playing football,” Casson said. “Football is a very high risk sport … Because we’re so close to each other on the line we hit our head and hands at the same time and then we push off … About five to ten times per game I get a little head contact but not too bad that it hurts afterwards.”

All of the student athletes  are required to go through a concussion education program that goes along with  neurological and psychological baseline training at the start of each season. If an athlete gets hurt, their current neuro-psyche analysis can be compared with their baseline to determine if damage has been sustained to warrant further help. 

Rusty Nozoe ’24 has been playing football for 11 years and plays on the defensive line at LC. 

“Players, coaches, athletic trainers as well as the people who develop all of our athletic gear, for our safety, (football safety is) definitely progressing,” Nozoe said. “It’s never really stagnant at any one point.”

While athletes are informed on concussions and LC takes measures to reduce concussions by decreasing contact in practice and buying new equipment, new research suggests a stronger emphasis on the potential risks of subconcussive hits.  According to Dr. Lee Goldstein, a researcher with the CTE Center at BU, new helmets are not necessarily a solution.

“It’s like developing a better cigarette filter,” Goldstein said. “It’s smoother and it might not give you a hacking cough. But you still get lung cancer.” 

While these subconcussive hits are not proven to cause CTE, they are strongly linked. However, these hits are difficult to track due to their frequency and even harder to interpret as a risk due to the lack of immediate symptoms. While the science is still relatively new, research linking football as a risk factor for developing CTE makes this an issue LC athletes should be educated on.  

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