How Brain Trauma Can Cause Addiction

By Adam K. Raymond 06/13/12

Lethal drug addiction is disturbingly common among pro athletes, like boxer Johnny Tapia and a long roster of NFL players, who suffer head trauma and chronic pain. Sadly, the more we know, the less anyone seems to care.

Tapia throws a left hook

The last time Johnny Tapia saw his mother she was chained to the back of a pickup truck screaming for help. He was screaming too. Only eight years old at the time, Tapia remembers pounding on a window inside his grandparent’s house as two men shrouded in darkness drove away to rape and murder his mother. With 26 plunges of a screwdriver, those men took Virginia Tapia’s life and inadvertently created one of the toughest boxers of the past 20 years. A beloved five-time champion with a career 59-5-2 record, Tapia began every fight by looking across the ring and seeing the faceless killers who took his mother.

“All the fury and hate. It had to go somewhere. My opponent was the man who killed my mother. And I wanted to kill him,” Tapia wrote in his 2006 autobiography, Mi Vida Loca.

After a career that spanned 23 years, Tapia died on May 27. He was 45 years old and had lived a life rife with physical and emotional trauma. A year after his mother’s murder, Tapia’s uncles began forcing him into brawls with older boys. He would later battle depression, addiction and bipolar disorder. Before dying in May, he’d been clinically dead at least four times before, the result of multiple drug overdoses. By the time Tapia died, his brain was like his body: battered, sore, flaunting the scars of a life hard-lived. But for all the observable damage Tapia endured, there was, in all likelihood, one thing that remained hidden—brain damage.  

Symptoms of CTE include confusion, headaches, impaired judgment and a lack of impulse control, which often manifests as an inability to resist bad things that feel good—namely, drugs.

Once referred to as dementia pugilistica, the form of brain damage most commonly found in boxers is now called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It’s caused, quite simply, by accumulated blows to the head, and over the course of the past decade, it's been revised as something that isn't just a boxer's problem. CTE has been discovered in other athletes, especially football and hockey players, as well as countless combat veterans who suffered the concussive blow of roadside bombs. Symptoms include disorientation, confusion, headaches, impaired judgment and a lack of impulse control, which often manifests itself as an inability to resist bad things that feel good—namely, drugs.

“Many [athletes with CTE] have developed drug and alcohol abuse issues,” says Chris Nowinski. A former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, Nowinski founded the Sports Legacy Institute in 2007 and teamed with Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy to study issues of brain trauma in sports. Among the CTSE’s findings is that repeated blows to the head cause degeneration of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control. A loss of impulse control can in turn lead someone who wouldn’t otherwise touch legal or illegal drugs down a dark path of addiction. Even if an athlete avoids the severity of CTE, a career full of concussions can cause recurring headaches, which can lead opiate abuse. Sometimes these paths to addiction exist independently. Other times they work together. “A lot of [athletes with CTE] were actually self-medicating through headaches, didn't have any impulse control [and] would get addicted to things,” Nowinski says.

This isn’t to say Tapia’s decades of addiction were caused by the damage almost surely done to his brain. His alcohol, cocaine and opiate abuse were likely the result of many risk factors. Still, after 66 professional bouts, it’s not difficult to imagine the thousands of hits Tabia took to the head contributing to his addictive personality. Nor is it difficult to see the connection between CTE and drug addiction in other athletes. Hockey players (Derek Boogaard, Bob Probert), football players (Tom McHale, Mike Webster) and pro wrestlers (Test, Chris Benoit) have all suffered addiction before dying young—through overdose or suicide—and receiving a posthumous CTE diagnosis. The disease can only be found by slicing open the brain, so we can only grimly speculate on the role blows to the head play in the drug problems of athletes like Oscar de la Hoya, Mike Tyson and the seven percent of retired NFL players who misuse opiates. But as we learn more about the problems caused by head trauma, the evidence against it is piling up. 

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Adam K. Raymond covers politics and sports for New York Magazine. Visit Adam's website and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.