How Brain Trauma Can Cause Addiction - Page 2

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

(page 2)

Diagnoses of CTE go back to the 1920s, when the chief medical examiner of Essex County in Newark, New Jersey, first wrote about “punch drunk syndrome.” In 1973, an English neuropathologist sliced up the brains of 15 dead boxers and saw what the disease looked like for the first time. But it wasn’t until CTE was found in the brains of football players in 2002 that it became much more than just a boxer’s disease. Since then CTE, which causes degeneration of brain tissue and the build-up of the harmful tau protein, has been found in more than 20 dead athletes along with combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

CTE is caused by multiple concussions, smaller subconcussive hits or, in the case of most vets, one intense blast. And the physical changes it causes in the brain may appear either months or decades after the trauma. When the changes do show up though, so too will the unmistakable symptoms, which almost always include impaired judgment and difficulty controlling impulses. 

Tom McHale used to be able to control his impulses just fine. His wife Lisa remembers when she met him at Cornell. He was 23 and on his way to the NFL. She was 19 and “instantaneously crazy about him.” They married four years later and Tom went on to play nine seasons for the Buccaneers, Eagles and Dolphins. After he retired Tom, started a restaurant in Tampa, got involved in real estate and gradually, Lisa writes, started “slipping away from us.” 

It began with depression and chronic pain that grew so bad he was unable to work on his feet. Before long he admitted to Lisa that he was dependant on painkillers to manage the aches in his joints. To counter the sluggishness brought on by the painkillers Tom picked up a cocaine habit. “The man that I so admired had become like a shell of his former self, almost as if the spark was slowly being extinguished,” Lisa wrote

On May 25, 2008, Tom died of an accidental overdose. Less than a week prior Lisa kicked him out of the house for using cocaine while the kids were home. A once-responsible father making decisions like that is just one reason why Tom’s CTE diagnosis would not come as a surprise.

Tom McHale’s story represents the extremes of the issue. He both developed the most serious form of brain damage found in athletes and experienced one of the most serious symptoms of that damage. Many other trauma-suffering athletes will never get a CTE diagnosis, nor will they dabble in cocaine. According to an ESPN-commissioned study released last year, they’ll just abuse the drugs that allowed them to function in their playing days: opiates.

ESPN’s survey of 644 former NFL players found that 52 percent of them used painkillers in their playing days and 71 percent of that group misused the drugs. Fifteen percent of those who misused painkillers continued to misuse them into retirement. And 98 percent of those misusers said they suffered undiagnosed concussions while in the league. “We were shocked to learn that [current prescription painkiller] misuse is really associated with undiagnosed concussions," said the study’s director Linda Cottler, a professor of epidemiology in Washington University's Department of Psychiatry.

The same phenomenon exists on the ice, where hockey players get dinged up just as often as their gridiron pounding compatriots. Derek Boogaard, a beloved NHL enforcer whose primary role was to kick the crap out of opponents, became reliant on painkillers to cope with the lingering effects of broken bones, hits to the head and a back injury. Over time he added Ambien and alcohol to his addictions. Finally, in May 2011 the 28-year-old died in a Minneapolis hotel room after mixing pills with alcohol. His brain would be sent to the Boston University CSTE where doctors found CTE. 

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
adam k raymond.jpeg

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