Should parents be concerned about their kids playing sports?

The Mesquite Panthers of Mesquite, Texas, rush the field for the second half. Photo by Princess McDowell.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy – CTE – is caused by repetitive brain trauma through both recognized concussions and smaller, sub-concussive blows. The repeated hits create a buildup of tau proteins, which kill nerve cells. Symptoms include dementia, depression and lack of impulse control.

Following reports that several professional athletes were found to have the illness after death, CTE has gained national attention recently.

Former NFL players Tom McHale, John Grimsley and Chris Henry, along with former WWE wrestler Chris Benoit have been diagnosed. And in recent months, younger athletes are being diagnosed with having CTE – causing some parents to wonder how this may affect their children.

A leading researcher on concussions has said that parents shouldn’t worry about the risk of young children contracting a dangerous disease found over the past few years in several deceased athletes.

Dr. Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery and co-director at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston Medical Center in Boston, said it’s too early to fully know the risk children face by playing contact sports.

“Although we have someone as young as 18 with it, only two cases in people that young have surfaced,” he said. “Two cases do not allow us to know what the risk is. Until we do, I would never recommend doing anything differently.

Cantu is referring to University of Pennsylvania defensive end Owen Thomas, 21, who committed suicide in April, and an 18-year-old athlete who played multiple sports have been the youngest athletes found to have CTE.

Cantu said although cases have been found in young people, it’s too soon for parents to take precautionary action.

“We know it happens, but we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions,” he said.

Cantu said that the youngest patients were symptomatic of the disease and did not directly die from it. He said normally someone would have to have the disease for a long time.

“Enough brain cells have to have been killed,” he said. “As a young person, you have such a reserve of extra brain cells.”

More recently linked to those who play sports, CTE can be found in assault victims and war veterans who experience loud blast.

“It’s not unique to athletes,” Cantu said.

Several Mesquite Cowboys players rotate off the field while Jimmy Medrano (#54) and the rest of the offense wait for the next series. Photo by Princess McDowell.

Okemar Glenn encourages son Tyler, 7, who plays Pop Warner football for the Mesquite Panthers. Photo by Princess McDowell.

Shannon Chavez, 29, has been involved in the Mesquite Pee Wee Football Association, a Pop Warner league based in Mesquite, Texas, since she was 5 years old. She started as a cheerleader for the Panthers organization and is now the assistant director of the flag division’s drill team, which is reserved for children ages 4 and 5. She said she can’t wait for the day that she can watch her son Blake play as part of the league’s flag division.

Only recently having learned about CTE, Chavez said she would still allow her son, who is 4, to play because the kids don’t hit hard enough to do any real damage.

“I want my kids to get involved and be involved in whatever,” she said.

Rosario Medrano, 40, said she isn’t worried either. She said she has no reservations about her son Jimmy, 9, participating in Pop Warner.

“It’s pretty safe,” said Medrano, whose son plays fullback for the league’s Mesquite Cowboys. “I’m not scared of anything [happening].”

Cantu stressed that children can get seriously injured on places other than a playing field.

“You might take your child out of football and they have a brain injury riding their bike,” he said. “It’s premature to suggest any kind of activity should be stopped.

Dr. Brian E. Moore, however, shares a different view. A neuropathologist and assistant professor of Pathology and Neurology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Moore – in response to Thomas’ suicide – said in his blog that although “ … brain trauma in an individual who is genetically predisposed to CTE may be a contributing factor leading to suicide … the speculation alone ought to be enough to make parents think twice before enrolling their kid in a football program.”

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