For the National Football League, concussions are a real problem. The league knows it. The league is just not happy talking about it.
A 2016 congressional report concluded the NFL tried to improperly influence the National Institutes of Health when the NIH was conducting a study about the connection between Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), commonly known as a concussion, and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is the disease that doctors believe contributed to the death of several former professional football players, among them San Diego native Junior Seau. Former players have tried relentlessly to try and figure out how to combat the symptoms of CTE and now thanks to a treatment being done in San Diego they might have a ray of hope.
First, a bit of background. Doctors believe 30 percent to 40 percent of people who sustain a concussion will experience some level of post-concussion syndrome. Post-concussion syndrome can cause neurological problems such as migraines, headaches and dizzy spells. It also comes with cognitive problems like memory changes, difficulty in planning or focusing and behavioral problems such as depression, mood disorders and sleep issues.
The multitude of symptoms makes TBI extremely difficult to treat.
“One of the big challenges when we do evaluations for traumatic brain injury is identifying which is the main driver in this constellation of symptoms and going after that,” said Dr. Mohammed Ahmed of the Kaizen Brain Center in La Jolla. “Often times we find that if depression comes in the setting of a concussion it’s often difficult to treat with medications.”
Resistance to traditional medications is one of the reasons the depression afflicting former football players is so difficult to deal with. At Kaizen Brain Center in La Jolla another technique is being utilized: Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
“It’s a stimulation of your brain using a magnetic field,” said Dr. Ahmed. “It’s one very effective way of treating depression in people who are not responding to medications or who have very severe depression.”
TMS has caught the attention of former athletes and military veterans who are reporting symptoms of CTE. Dr. Ahmed says it is especially effective against depression because TMS sparks electrical activity in the brain cells, targeting and changing the brain function in a very specific area.
“We believe that people with depression have decreased activity in a certain are of the brain, which is the frontal lobe. Using this electrical activity you can change that and make that area more active and the depression symptoms can be improved.”
TMS was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of depression in 2008 and recently approved it for treatment of migraines, as well.
The treatment begins by getting TMS for a half hour every day for 6-8 weeks. After that the patient needs only to undergo “maintenance” treatments once every 4-6 weeks. Doctors say the process can decrease the need for, and in some cases completely eliminate, the need for medications.
“We are just beginning to unfold the connection between a head injury and CTE. But there is good optimism among the community of TBI and CTE researchers that we will understand this connection and understand this process so that we can come up with better treatment targets.”
The research with TMS has been so encouraging that Dr. Ahmed believes TMS can be used to treat other neurological ailments, including Alzheimer’s disease in the future.
“One of the reasons we started Kaizen Brain Center is we wanted to put traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s under one roof and treat it in an interdisciplinary manner,” said Dr. Ahmed. “One of my academic interests has been to understand how a head injury causes Alzheimer’s or CTE.”
It is important to note that this treatment is not a cure for post-concussion syndrome or CTE. But Dr. Ahmed believes it’s a way to deal with the aftermath.
“What happened happened. We can’t go back and treat a concussion. It’s a historical event. There is a brain injury and as a result there are symptoms, so what we do is go after the symptoms so that we can improve the function of that individual.”
That, in turn, improves the quality of life. Dr. Ahmed has spoken to the NFL Alumni Association and has several former football players as patients. He also treats military members who have suffered TBI and says every single one he has treated that displays post-concussive symptoms has reported an improvement, not just in physical and mental health … but in family health.
“Veterans that come back have can have difficulties adjusting to their spouses. Former football players have difficulties with their families. So the whole family is involved; the children are involved. Even if we’re able to make some changes and improvement, I think that’s a big victory.”
Dr. Ahmed believes this treatment could possibly open the door to a true medical miracle: finding a way to prevent CTE or Alzheimer’s.
“We want somebody to sit in the chair outside and feel that there is hope here. That’s the message we want to convey to people.”
For more information on the treatment, which is now being covered by several insurance providers, visit www.kaizenbraincenter.com.