Traumatic Brain Injury & Sleep Apnea

Here’s a tragic story of Owen Thomas, a talented University of Pennsylvania football lineman that recently committed suicide. An autopsy revealed early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder that’s typically seen in football players who suffer repeated head trauma. Typically, findings are similar to what’s seen in Alzheimer’s disease, with neurofibrilary tangels and amyloid plaques. The surprising thing about Thomas’ condition was his age—he was only 21.

Former Tampa Bay Bucaneer Tom McHale died at age 45 of CTE last year. McHale was the 6th former NFL player to be discovered post-mortem to have CTE since 2002. If you add to these findings that football player in general (especially linemen) have a much higher incidence of obstructive sleep apnea, this could explain the high incidence of degenerative brain disease in football players.

It’s a given that you’ll hit your head repeatedly while playing football. Having played football and and rugby in school, I’ve taken a number of hits to the head myself.

The human brain has an amazing ability to heal and regenerate, but when place in adverse conditions, scarring and inflammation occurs. It’s been proven that chronic intermittent hypoxia (from obstructive sleep apnea) causes major brain damage in critical areas of the brain, including parts that are responsible for memory, executive function, motor skills, and autonomic function. Hypoxia can also induce amyloid plaques to build up in brain tissues. Damage to the brain, in the presence of hypoxia, can only lead to bad things.

I realize all this is pure speculation, but is there justification for routine screening for obstructive sleep apnea in all football players? I’d like to hear your opinion about this.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “Traumatic Brain Injury & Sleep Apnea

  1. That is pretty scary, Dr Park. I’ve noticed that my memory is terrible. I hope that the surgery I had and sleeping with the CPAP will reverse this over time. I’m scared to think what this sleep apnea can do to a person over time if not treated

  2. Screening for sleep apnea should be part of a routine physical. It is at least as important as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

  3. R,

    I totally agree that routine screening for obstructive sleep apnea should be part of every physical, especially since obstructive sleep apnea can cause high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

  4. A small study raises more concern about the long-term consequences of brain injuries suffered by thousands of soldiers — suggesting they may be at risk of developing the same degenerative brain disease as some retired football players.
    Autopsies of four young veterans found the earliest signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in their brain tissue, Boston researchers reported Wednesday.
    They compared the brain tissue of some of the youngest athletes ever found with signs of early CTE, in their teens and 20s, and concluded the abnormalities were nearly identical. AP Newswire 5/18/12

  5. My son, Ben Hamilton, sustained a TBI 22years ago as a result of being a pedestrian run over by an automobile. He was diagnosed with severe Sleep Apnea in 2015. He tried a CPAP, but has no short term memory, so he forgets why he’s wearing the device and removes it. He has a dental appliance that works, but we can no longer get the accessories for it from the dentist. She suggested surgery. As you can imagine, Ben takes many meds. I’m asking what are the risks involved in Ben having Sleep Apnea surgery. Thank you,
    Jack Hamilton (Ben’s parent and legal guardian)