The experienced brain injury attorneys of Passen & Powell recently wrote on the research tying ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to traumatic brain injury (TBI). Today, we share the story of one athlete suffering from TBI-induced ALS: Steve Gleason of the New Orleans Saints.
Steve Gleason is not only a retired football player, he is a local hero, adored by the people of New Orleans. But the very hard-hitting nature of his football career, which endeared him to fans, may now have lead to his debilitating brain disease.
Gleason’s rise to cult-hero status was against all odds. Small and slow for an NFL player, he still earned a scholarship to Washington State University, and one a position in the NFL. Never a starter, he was still an impact player, excelling on special teams, blocking punts, and leading in tackles on special teams plays.
He was also a born leader and giver. Gleason grew out his hair to be cut for the Locks of Love charity. He supported biofuels, even buying a diesel pickup and powering it with biodiesel. He demanded and began a recycling program at the team’s practice facilities.
Gleason retired from the NFL in 2008, after an eight-year career. By early 2011, he had received his ALS diagnosis.
As our brain injury attorneys know, Gleason is far from alone.
About 14 new victims are diagnosed with ALS each day, striking between one and three Americans out of 100,000, most of them men between 40 and 70 years of age (Gleason himself is 34).
ALS, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive, ultimately terminal disease. Over the course of the disease, a victim’s motor neurons stop working. Victims become less able to use or move their muscles, which then atrophy from lack of use. While remaining fully mentally aware and alert, the victim loses the ability to walk, talk, and eventually, even to swallow. Finally, the muscles surrounding the chest wall and lungs shut down, leading to pneumonia or suffocation.
Victims of ALS can often extend their lives, especially if they choose to be placed on a ventilator. But the disease is always progressive, and ultimately fatal. The average lifespan after diagnosis is two to three years.
Although head trauma and ALS have not yet been definitively tied, nor has their link been explained, our experienced brain injury attorneys are convinced by existing research. Italian soccer players, for instance (who suffer repeated head trauma from collisions with the ball and with one another), develop ALS at six times the average rate. NFL players, who experience frequent concussions and more severe forms of TBI, develop the disease at between eight and fifteen times the expected rate. Soldiers exposed to TBI from IED blasts likewise develop ALS at higher-than-expected rates.
The anecdotal evidence is also overwhelming. Some of the most notable victims of ALS developed the disease after suffering head trauma. Lou Gehrig was known for routinely playing through brain and other injuries. Stephen Hawking developed the disease after a concussion resulting from a fall down a flight of stairs. Gleason himself was known as a “kamikaze” hitter, participating in some of football’s worst collisions. He was diagnosed with a concussion at least twice, and admits to having had his “bell rung” on countless occasions throughout his career.
Whatever remains unclear about the link between traumatic brain injury at ALS, the continually evolving research plainly illustrates the massive personal and societal costs of TBI. We can only hope that new ways to fight this particular consequence will be developed soon, so that all sufferers – athletes, soldiers, and others – can have a fighting chance.
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