CTE The Silent Killer

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Out of all of the actors in the world that have made serious impacts outside of just entertainment, I wouldn’t say that Will Smith jumps to mind as someone that has highlighted many key problems over the years… other than what to do when a couple of guys who are up to no good, start making trouble in your neighbourhood! On a serious note however, that changed when he brought the issue of CTE to the mainstream in his film “Concussion“.

Filip Polc
Riders are being pushed to try new and ever more dangerous things.

Initially an issue to hit the sport of American Football, CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a disease affecting those that have experienced severe or repetitive blows to the head, it is now being investigated as a potential issue for other sports where head trauma can occur. With football, or soccer as they call it in my new found home of America, being the latest sport to investigate its potential impact through players heading the ball. There are already a host of former players thought to have been miss-diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, who are now thought to have had CTE.

How does this effect cycling? Well earlier this year we tragically lost one of our own, Dave Mirra, BMX legend, X Games superstar and triathlete, who tragically he took his own life. Having transcended into the mainstream as a result of his riding career, he appeared to have increasingly been at a loss as to who he was after his retirement, something I’m sure we can all relate to. Initially people thought it was just a case of adjusting from being a global BMX icon, to being a “normal” person, suddenly all of that drive and determination which had been focused into his riding, no longer had an outlet. His friends thought that his newfound passion for triathlon could fill the void, but unfortunately the issue was much deeper rooted than this and tragically on February 4th, despite a loving home life, Dave ended it all.

It is reported that in the last few months of his life, many friends suggested that to him to watch the Will Smith film, Concussion, fearing that the repeated head injuries he had suffered could have been having a similar effect on him, as it did the American Football players in the film.  He only watched half of it. With such a strong character, it is unknown if reaching the end of the film would have made a difference or not, but the film had reached his friends and they were starting to pay serious attention to Dave’s well being. Unfortunately they did not reach him in time.

At present CTE can only be detected post-mortem, with this knowledge and so that his death would not be in vain, Lauren, his wife, had his brain examined in a hope for some clarity and to highlight a previously unthought of problem. The results? Dave Mirra did indeed have CTE.

I can still picture many of you thinking how does that impact me? I’m not plummeting the height of a multi story building onto the floor of a half pipe. Well I’m sure I’m not the only one to have had regular head blows, especially when I was racing downhill. If I was going to hurt any part of my body, more often than not it would be my head. I’ve never been knocked out, but I’ve had some pretty heavy concussions over the years and at times I have questioned the effect this has had on me, especially when a doctor made a comparison to the late Muhammad Ali.

George Brannigan - Crash
George Brannigan’s nasty crash at Fort William

With our sport being a relatively young one, with limits being pushed every day, could a CTE problem be unearthed in the mountain bike community? If a test became available in the future, would you sign up? I know I would, but would it change how you rode? There’s no need to panic, pack your bike away and start living in a bubble, but it’s something we should all be aware of. Think about it logically, there’s only so many times you can hit your head and not pay a price for it.

Could Dave Mirra’s biggest legacy, not be his immense sporting prowess, or his multi million-dollar video game sales, but be about mental health and awareness? As a rider I’m used to pushing through the pain, shrugging off things that normal people would otherwise get checked out. Maybe Dave Mirra’s prognoses and the growing exposure of CTE will make us think twice about this.

By no means is this ramble meant to be about safety proofing what we do and enjoy, removing the risk and sanitising the sport, as to some extent it is that danger and thrill factor that encourages us to ride, it is more food for thought.

The symptoms to look out for, in ourselves and in those around us include; memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, lack of impulse control, change in mental state and parkinsonism. In short, if you or someone you know, who has had serious head blows starts acting differently, don’t let it go unnoticed. It may be nothing, but then again it could just be the tip of the iceberg.

There is a silent killer out there, it has struck at other sports. So I ask the question: is it circling ours? and if so what can and should be done about it?

1st image: George Brannigan Crash – Fort William 2016, Courtesy Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool.
2nd image: Filip Polc pushing the limits during Red Bull Valparaiso Cerro Abajo 2016 – Courtesy Claudio Olguín Parra/Red Bull Content Pool

Comments (2)

    I’ve been concussed a few times and after my worst event, definitely noticed a change in my underlying mood – as did my family, friends and close colleagues from my behaviours. It’s interesting to now see CTE beginning to be recognised.

    When my wife (Who is a mental health professional) became aware of CTE her first comment to me was “That sounds similar to you”.

    I would encourage all who have had either multiple or significant concussions to try and be more self-aware of their mental state.

    Great article, I would imagine this will become increasingly relevant with coming generations. My sons have been playing rugby as well as riding jump and MTBs for example since they were 7.

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