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Screen Shots: Dangers of concussions go beyond immediate symptoms

Keith Primeau was forced to cut his NHL career short because of post-concussion symptoms. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

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Keith Primeau was forced to cut his NHL career short because of post-concussion symptoms. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Any NHL player who has ever suffered a concussion should have been watching the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s always-superb Fifth Estate program Tuesday night.

The award-winning TV newsmagazine show centered primarily on last summer’s gruesome double-murder/suicide involving pro wrestler Chris Benoit and his wife and young son. The lessons to be learned from Benoit’s legacy could prevent a similar tragedy from striking the hockey world.

That is, if the National Hockey League and its Players’ Association are willing to spend the time, money and effort necessary to do so.

The CBC show – which can now be viewed at the network’s website – first recapped the key details of Benoit’s sad spiral, including the increasingly erratic behavior that preceded his murderous rampage.

Yet, instead of focusing on steroid abuse as a possible explanation for the wrestler’s actions, the Fifth Estate spoke with two doctors at the University of North Carolina who examined Benoit’s brain after the murders and came up with an entirely different theory on what caused an otherwise doting father to snap so violently.

Shockingly, the UNC doctors diagnosed Benoit as having the brain of an 80- or 90-year-old person suffering from dementia.

Furthermore, they revealed the results of a study completed on the after-effects of concussions on 3,000 former NFL players. The study demonstrated that, in addition to serious mental and cognitive problems, the ex-football players had to deal with depression – depression that at times led to suicide attempts, or successful suicides – that may be a direct result of repeated concussions.

“(The adverse symptoms were) much more common than we would have expected, than a general population shows,” Dr. Julian Bailes, of the University’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, told the CBC. “It was correlated with the number of concussions or head injuries they had during their football playing career.”

The University’s conclusions should alarm any person who’s had a severe concussion. And for hockey players who put their heads at risk every time they set skates on the ice, the study is positively frightening.

But one prominent retired NHLer, who knows only too well about head injuries, sees the study as a positive step toward greater awareness of exactly how serious the issue really is.

“If the NHL proposed a study or investigation for such an effect, I’d be first in line,” Keith Primeau, a 15-year NHL veteran who retired in 2006 because of post-concussion symptoms that still pop up from time to time in his life, told thehockeynews.com.

“For me, for the day-to-day (post-concussion effects), I think I’m over the worst of it. I’ve been feeling really good in the last four months. It’s been the most comfortable I’ve been in some time.

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“But I contracted the flu this week, and everything went right to my head. And the (concussion) symptoms start to come back; the headaches and pressure were extreme, but you also got that sense your wires were crossed, and your thought process was interrupted.

“It’s not only frustrating and scary, but it also makes you angry. It makes you mad, because you think you’re out of the woods.

“I’ve resigned myself to the fact I’m always going to have (symptoms) to deal with, and I hope that they’ll be very intermittent, as they’ve started to become. But I know I’ll always have these setbacks. They are a reminder of exactly the price I’ve paid.”

The 36-year-old Primeau, now an analyst for Philadelphia Flyers games, said it is an uphill battle to make non-concussed players understand the severity of the situation.

“They can’t possibly comprehend the severity and long-term ramifications of head injuries,” said the Toronto native. “As a sufferer, even I don’t know what the ramifications are. I believe at some point in my life there’s going to be a consequence; I just hope it’s later rather than sooner.”

Primeau is also familiar with the depression referenced in the UNC study.

“Depression was a tremendous part of it for me, but I had a really strong support group, including my wife Lisa,” he said. “And I give her a lot of credit for putting up with me. I wouldn’t paint my picture as all doom-and-gloom or extremely severe, but I know I had some outbursts that were out of character, and on reflection, were a result of concussions.”

Although Primeau doesn’t want to run down a game that’s been very good to him and his family, he sees the league’s head-injury problems as an issue that won’t go away and needs to be adequately dealt with as soon as possible.

“A concussion isn’t the type of injury that showed up on the scene 10 years ago…and will just disappear eventually,” he said. “Our sport is physical and there is contact involved on a daily basis. So it’s here to stay.

“And if it takes 10, 20, 40 years for the long-term ramifications to reveal themselves, at some point it will be addressed. But right now, there’s no push for it.”

Adam Proteau’s Screen Shots appears every Thursday only on thehockeynews.com. Want to take a shot at Adam Proteau? You can send him a comment or question through our Ask Adam feature.

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