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Retired NFL players at risk for hearing loss and tinnitus

Contributed by , staff writer for Healthy Hearing

If you like watching professional football games, chances are you’ve said “oh, that had to hurt” at least once during the action. You’d be right. According to a Washington Post survey of retired NFL football players, almost nine of every 10 say they suffer daily from aches and pains related to their football careers. And even though much of the pain and bruising subsides, some of the physical damage may be invisible -- and permanent.

The same number of players – nine of 10 – also say they suffered a concussion during their career; six in 10 reported three or more concussions, and two in three say they experience continuing symptoms from them. In fact, the resulting dementia, depression and suicide rates among retired NFL players is so prevalent, more than 4500 retired NFL players filed suit against the NFL in 2011 for ithe way it has handled concussions.

football and tinnitus
Playing professional football isn't all fun and 
games. NFL players are at risk for both hearing
loss and tinnitus. 

Notable players who participated in the lawsuit include former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett and Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who suffers from dementia. Recently, former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath revealed he has brain damage as a result of the five concussions he received during his career in the NFL. The NFL settled the lawsuit just before the beginning of the 2013 season for $765 million.

In addition to the disabilities these athletes named in their lawsuit, they may also be at risk for developing permanent hearing loss and tinnitus, according to John Leonetti, M.D., a professor in the departments of Otolaryngology and Neurological Surgery and program director of Cranial Base Surgery at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

How concussions cause hearing loss

Most of us know our ears are instrumental for hearing, but not many understand the critical relationship they have with the brain. While our ears are responsible for collecting sound, it’s our brain that interprets what we hear. Whenever the auditory pathway between the ears and brain is damaged, there is the potential for permanent hearing loss.

A blow to the head, such as those NFL players receive when they play the game, causes the brain to wiggle and may damage the nerves that connect it to the inner ear. It can also cause a shock wave that damages the cochlea, where delicate hair cells are located. These sensory hair cells are responsible for translating the noise our ears collect into electrical impulses. These impulses are sent along the auditory nerve to the auditory region of the brain to be interpreted as recognizable sound. Since hair cells do not regenerate, when they’re damaged, so is your hearing.

What is tinnitus

Tinnitus is the medical term for ringing in the ears when there is no outside source causing the noise. Those who experience tinnitus describe the phantom sounds they hear as ringing, whooshing, buzzing, humming, hissing or roaring. Currently, there is no cure for tinnitus; however, the condition can be managed by treating the cause or altering reactions to it.

Although the most common cause of tinnitus is exposure to excessive noise, the second most common reason is head and neck injuries. The two categories of head and neck injury include Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which can be caused by sports injuries, and whiplash.

What is the NFL doing to mitigate head trauma?

The NFL is aware of the physical dangers of the sport and is working to reduce the damage. Some of the new safe guards include:

  • Outlawing helmet-to-helmet hits and intentionally targeting the heads of defenseless players – such as quarterbacks and kickers – who may not see a hit coming;
  • Outlawed the four-man wedge formation;
  • Moved the kick off from the 30 yard line to the 35; and,
  • Require players with suspected concussions to be evaluated by a team doctor and independent medical consultant before being allowed to return to the game.

The NFL claims these new safeguards resulted in a 13 percent reduction in the number of concussions in 2013 and a 23 percent decrease in the number of helmet-to-helmet injuries.

“To date, there is no proof that NFL players are suffering hearing loss and tinnitus at a rate higher than that of other men their ages,” Leonetti said. “But based on what we already know about blunt head trauma, as well as anecdotal reports from retired athletes, we believe there are compelling reasons to conduct a scientifically rigorous study to quantify the risk of hearing loss and tinnitus among retired NFL players.”

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