Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath doesn't remember ever suffering a concussion or going through concussion protocol. Such terms didn't exist 40 years ago.
In Namath's playing days, they called a concussion “getting their bell rung,” as he recalls. Not much was known about concussions or the long-term effects. The former New York Jets star, who was as influential off the field as he was on it, is now leading the charge for treatment of brain injuries for those who played when concussions weren't fully understood.
Over the past few years he has seen teammates scared and confused mentally and physically, as they age and suffer the effects of playing in the NFL. Seeing that led Namath to consider the avenues to treatment.
Until recently, the NFL had been lacking in helping players with their medical issues after their careers were done. Namath knew that more needed to be done, so he reached out to Jupiter Medical Center in Jupiter, Fla. and asked about possible ways that brain injuries could be dealt with. He was willing to be tested to see how possible treatments may – or may not – work.
That led to the creation of the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center at the Jupiter Medical Center.
Namath started a series of hyperbaric treatments – 120 dives during the span of roughly nine months. Each chamber dive takes about an hour and 20 minutes. The first 15 minutes is used to get to the proper atmosphere. The chamber is designed to allow the atmospheric pressure to be doubled or tripled, allowing the lungs to take in more air.
Conceptually, injured body tissue needs more oxygen to heal. So for someone with a brain injury such as a concussion, the hope is that these treatments can and will restore the function of damaged or dead brain cells.
The chambers are used for burn victims, people with diabetes and for those like Namath who are suffering from brain trauma.
“To be able to see, to literally be able to see, with the nuclear scan the cells that had stopped working to start working, to get blood flow. To be restored, renewed and start looking like the rest of my brain. The FDA approved this study and they want another study, this one on 100 people,” Namath told Yahoo Sports.
“I know I've had a change in my being, my physiology. It's quite a relief to see those pictures and take those tests and take it again and again and see improvement each time. I know it's worked for me. I'm thankful.”
His memory has improved as has his retention. There is hope that these treatments can and will aid other former NFL players who have suffered such conditions.
But to understand what is happening to Namath and his brain – and to thousands of NFL alumni like him – first a concussion has to be understood.
“A concussion is an injury to the brain caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head. This sudden movement can cause the brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, damaging the brain cells and creating chemical changes in the brain,” said Dr. Lee Fox, Chief of Radiology at Jupiter Medical Center and Co-Medical Director of the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center at Jupiter Medical Center.
Even though a concussion is considered by many medical professionals as a rather “mild” brain injury, there are long-term effects.
And while it may not be life-threatening, it can be “life-changing” according to Dr. Fox. Fox said that a concussion can affect things such as memory, learning, coordination and balance, speech, hearing, vision and it can even cause emotional changes or problems. A severe brain injury can also negatively impact all aspects of people’s lives, including relationships with family and friends, as well as their ability to work or be employed, do household chores, drive or do other normal daily activities.
Enter the hyperbaric chamber, where pressurized oxygen is introduced with the idea that dormant brain cells are essentially re-awakened.
“After Joe completed 40 [hyperbaric] treatments or 'dives' as they’re called, we repeated the SPECT scan and cognitive test. We compared them to the initial tests and we saw a dramatic change. The scan showed his left temporal lobe was completely normalized,” Dr. Fox said. “We could see normal blood flow, normal activity and it was symmetrical when compared to the right temporal lobe. Joe continued with an additional 80 treatments. We did scans at regular intervals throughout his treatment and conducted another scan one year after he completed the full course of therapy. We were very pleased to see that his scan remained normal and unchanged since his last day of therapy.”
Namath says that he is seeing the promise of the treatments and believes that it can be beneficial to him long-term. He is confident that the treatment has helped him with memory but also current cognitive functions.
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Kristian R. Dyer writes for Metro New York and is a contributor to Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KristianRDyer