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How Does Boxing Affect the Brain?

By David Arroyo

Although there are many virtues to boxing, the sweet science has a sour history when it comes to brain injuries. Muhammad Ali best represents this dichotomy, a brilliant fighter mangled by the sport. Scientific studies on boxing related brain injuries are sparse, but the medical consequences are clear. Left untreated these conditions could result in death.

Short Term Risk

Acute hematomas are responsible for 75 percent of all boxing related head injuries and the No. 1 cause of deaths. Subdural hematomas can be brought on by a single stiff shot, especially a knock-out blow, or repeated multiple blows to the same spot. Essentially a bruise on the brain, blood spillage quickly compresses the tissue. Symptoms develop quickly. In the 1980s, Louis Curtis suffered a hematoma that quickly inflamed to grotesque proportions. The referee was forced to stop the fight.

Post-Fight Danger

Concussions are also associated with immediate blows to the brain. In some sports, most notably football, a team can pull an injured athlete aside and do immediate tests for concussions while others play on. There are no such breaks in boxing, and symptoms such as dizziness and vomiting may not manifest until long after a fight is over. In 1962, Benny Peret went into a coma, a clear indicator of a concussion, and died after losing to Emile Griffith. However, some people think the real damage occurred a few months earlier when Peret was knocked out by Gene Fullmer and did not fully recover.

Life-Time Effect

As a consequence of a lifetime of repeated blows to the head, some fighters experience an overall decline in mental health. Dementia itself is a category rather than a disease referring to any number of conditions responsible for the deterioration of memory and cognitive skills. In fact,15 to 40 percent of retired fighters exhibit symptoms comparable to Alzheimer's. In fighters, this phenomena is referred to as Dementia Pugilistica.

The Future of Fighting

While some fighters are clearly scarred for life, others never show signs of disabilities. In 2014, The Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at The Cleveland Clinic launched an ambitious study chronicle the long term effects of fighting on the brain. Active and retired fighters will have access to MRIs, neurological examinations, and genetic testing. The center planned to develop a screening process for brain health and, hopefully, be able to determine why certain fighters are more susceptible to brain injury than others.

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