I had my head examined - and you should too!

By Jeff Nixon
Feb. 27, 2016

This is an MRI image of my brain

Usually when someone says “You should get your head examined,” they don’t mean it in a nice way. They say it because you’re acting a little foolish, or you’ve done something, or said something that's just plain stupid, ignorant, hurtful or bat-shit crazy.

The truth is, all former NFL players should get their heads examined - especially if they're currently experiencing some moderate or severe memory problems.

Any examination should be done by a licensed Neurologist and it should also include a Neuropsychological exam. In many cases an MRI will also be part of the overall examination and that can make your wallet a lot lighter. A single scan runs $2,600 on average - and that’s even before your insurance kicks in. You can read why this common diagnostic procedure is so expensive here

A couple years ago, I was invited to participate in study that was being conducted by the University of Buffalo. It was called the "UB Orthopedics & Sports Medicine’s study on aging, cognitive functioning and concussions" and it was my ticket to a free examination and MRI. The battery of cognitive tests I took were almost identical to those that will be required when players start taking their baseline assessments under the NFL Concussion Settlement.  The good news - all those tests will be free of charge and they will be conducted by independent doctors that have no affiliation with the NFL.    

For me, the four hours of cognitive testing was a piece of cake compared to being crammed into a tight fitting MRI machine. If you’re even a little claustrophobic, make sure they give you some Valium about an hour before you're inserted into that torture chamber. If you're lucky, you can find a doctor that has an upright MRI like the one Jim McMahon used in his assessment and treatment. 

After pushing the panic button for the second time in order to come out of the machine and get my fear under control, the MRI technician asked me if I would like wear a headset and listen to some music to drown out the loud beeping, buzzing, and jack-hammering sounds that were bombarding me in the MRI. I really wish she had told me this before we got started. I said hell yes, so she gave me an iPod Shuffle with access to thousands of albums and songs. I found the very first Van Halen album and played one of my favorite rock songs from my rookie year in the NFL.  You can hear the song as you watch my MRI Brain scan:

The first chorus of Running with the Devil was kind of like my anthem for playing NFL football:  "I live my life like there's no tomorrow, And all I've got I had to steal, At least I don't need to beg or borrow, Yes, I'm living at a pace that kills."  

In viewing my MRI, one of the things I noticed right away was how small the distance was between my brain and my skull. It's only a couple of millimetres. This space is filled with a membrane known as the Meninges. It, along with the cerebral spinal fluid helps to cushion and protect the brain from vibration and knocks, enveloping it in a protective cushion to keep the delicate brain tissue safe.  Well, at least safe from everyday normal living.  

When I look at the MRI video of my brain scan, I wonder if any helmet could prevent concussions and sub-concussive blows to the brain.  The laws of physics say no. If the head comes to a sudden stop - it doesn't matter what's on the outside of the skull - the brain will move forward and hit the inside of the skull.  Helmets protect it partly by spreading the force over a larger area. In Newton’s third law of motion called "The Impulse-Momentum Change Theorem" it states that if you increase the amount of time while keeping the amount of impact the same, the amount of force experienced will decrease.

A good way to show this Theorem is by dropping an egg on concrete....... and on a soft cushion. When the egg lands on the concrete, the time of impact is very short, which makes the amount of force the egg experiences high. The net result is that the egg cracks. But when you drop the egg on a cushion, the impact takes longer as the egg sinks into the cushion and then bounces back. More time, means the net force is less and the eggshell does not break. If players wore bigger and more shock absorbing helmets, like the one Mark Kelso wore - after experiencing several concussions - it would help. But helmets are not the only answer to the concussion problem.

Mark Kelso, a safety for the Bills from 1986 to 1993, wore an outer-padded helmet as a starter in four Super Bowls and finished with 30 career NFL interceptions.

The Army is helping the NFL with research on concussions and recently the idea of "tethering" the helmet to the body has shown some positive results. Here is an article that talks about this new research and technology:  "How Army Research Is Combating Concussions in the NFL." 

Better mouth guards are also a critical part of the overall quest to make impacts to the head less severe. I have written about this on numerous occasions and I think it's only a matter of time before the NFL makes new specialized mouth guards a mandatory piece of equipment.       

There are some brilliant minds researching different ways to minimize injuries to the brain. We will  never ever eliminate all the risks associated with playing football, but we should never stop trying to make the game safer. Showing young football players how to tackle with their heads up is one of the most important things we can teach them. When I played high school, college and NFL football, we were actually encouraged to use our heads like a battering ram. It scares me to see some NFL players still using their head and helmet as a weapon.   

The culture of football must change, and it should start on the very first day that a young person puts a helmet on their head.