What Congress Will Be Told About the Safety of Mixed Martial Arts

This week the Congressional Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection will hear from witnesses providing background information on the sport of Mixed Martial Arts in the context of debating whether to expand the Ali Act to the sport.

Among the witnesses to be heard will be Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor, who is an Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine and Neurology and the Director of the Brain Injury Research Center of Mount Sinai .

Dr. O’Connor will tell the sub-committe as follows with respect to dangers of traumatic brain injury, something all combat sports athletes should take care to understand –

The potential long-term consequences of TBI are not limited to dementia. Data from the TBI
Model Systems (funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and
Rehabilitation Research) suggests that among individuals who receive inpatient rehabilitation after TBI, within 5 years of injury 50% of people will have either died or declined from a previously achieved level of functioning.

Research using this nation-wide database has found that individuals who sustain a TBI experience a shortened lifespan of up to 9 years, and compared to the general population of similar age, gender, and race they more commonly die from causes that implicate multiple body systems such as respiratory conditions, sepsis, and digestive conditions.

Individuals who survive a TBI tend to have more medical comorbidities  and earlier onset of certain chronic health problems; together this research has led to the realization that TBI is more appropriately conceptualized as a chronic disease process, rather
than an isolated injury event.

Milder TBI (or concussion) can result in symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, imbalance, and changes in mood or cognition, but unlike more severe TBI, concussion symptoms usually disappear completely in a matter of weeks or months. Still, a minority of individuals experience persistent post-concussion symptoms. Most of what we know about concussion comes from studies involving contact sport athletes; from this work we have learned that individuals who sustain multiple concussions may experience slowed recovery and more severe post-concussive symptoms.

A growing body of research has indicated that repeated exposure to sub-concussive head trauma, even in the absence of head trauma that would meet clinical criteria for concussion, may be associated with serious long-term consequences. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a disease that is thought to be triggered by repeated exposure to sub-concussive head trauma, and is diagnosed postmortem by abnormal accumulation of a protein called tau in the brain.

Our team participated in the expert panel convened by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke which determined that CTE is a unique pathological disease that is distinguishable from other neurodegenerative conditions. CTE was first diagnosed in boxers and has since been found in many other contact sport athletes. The majority of research on CTE has been conducted in football players, and nearly 90% of former football players whose brains were donated to a CTE brain bank were diagnosed with CTE.

Although CTE cannot be yet diagnosed during life, many  individuals who have been diagnosed postmortem with CTE experienced symptoms such as mood changes, agitation and aggression, and cognitive impairment which worsened over time

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