THE WHOLE PLAYER
THE WHOLE LIFE

Drawing on expertise from across Harvard University, the Football Players Health Study is dedicated to understanding the causes of conditions former NFL players face, with the goal of improving their health and wellbeing.

 

Input from Former NFL Players =
Research We’re Conducting

core
Core Assessments: Includes questionnaires and in-person studies. Former players can participate.
additional
Additional Studies and Research: These may utilize player data to create diagnostics, prevention, and treatment strategies that will ultimately benefit both former and current players. Research includes several projects that address the legal and ethical factors affecting player health, and provide recommendations for improvement. Note: these do not require former player participation. 

Former NFL players have told us what’s important to them – check out what we’re working on in response to their input:

OSTEOARTHRITIS:

What we know:

  • Football players suffer from a high rate of post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA) following joint injuries.

Why research is important:

  • Early joint injuries and osteoarthritis (knee, hip, shoulder, etc.) can lead to pain, inflammation, and possibly surgery later in life.

What we are currently doing:

  • Our researchers, Jeffrey Karp, PhD, and Joerg Ermann, MD, are developing a way to possibly treat arthritis, which will allow a drug to release into the joint in direct response to inflammation. While the aim of this research is to provide relief from pain, it’s also intended to help prevent joint degeneration.
  • Christine Huang, PhD, another Harvard researcher supported by the Study, is testing a dietary supplement derived from citrus peels. It’s called modified citrus pectin, and can potentially treat chronic arthritic inflammation and pain.


 

ACL:

What we know:

  • With approximately 55 tears per year in professional football, ACL injuries are common in players, can often end a career, and eventually, lead to osteoarthritis.
  • Current reconstruction surgery involves using the patient’s own skin to repair the ACL, and up to 80 percent of patients go on to develop arthritis. With this method, some players can return to the game; others cannot.

Why research is important:

  • Advancing research on ACL tears, including long-term conditions that may develop after a player has an ACL injury, will help us better understand this common injury.
  • Developing a more successful, less invasive surgery may help players stay on the field longer, and may prevent osteoarthritis of the knee.

What we are currently doing:

  • As our Study team examines player data from our first questionnaire, they’ve learned that, among former players, long-term health conditions may be connected to ACL injuries, including conditions that affect other areas of the body beyond muscles and bones. More details will be forthcoming.
  • Our researcher, Martha Murray, MD, has developed a surgical technique that allows the torn ACL to heal on its own. Read about BEAR™, currently in clinical trials, and watch a patient video.


 
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MUSCULOSKELETAL:

What we know:

  • Common sports injuries and conditions affecting the muscles and body structure include knee injuries, sprains, swollen muscles, cramps, Achilles tendon tears, rotator cuff tears, fractures, and dislocations.

Why research is important:

  • Preventing, diagnosing, and treating various musculoskeletal injuries may help players sustain longer, healthier careers, and avoid surgery.

What we are currently doing:

  • We are supporting Conor Walsh, PhD, a researcher who is developing a new bracing technology that protects the knee while the player is on the field, without restricting motion.

PAIN:

What we know:

  • Pain and inflammation can affect multiple areas of the body, and can result from many conditions that affect current and former players.

Why research is important:

  • Making new discoveries in pain treatment can positively impact the quality of life for players as they recover from injuries and/or suffer chronic conditions.

What we are currently doing:

  • We’re supporting the research of Christine Huang, PhD, who is testing a dietary supplement derived from citrus peels. It’s called modified citrus pectin, and can potentially treat chronic arthritic inflammation and pain.
  • To treat headache and neck pain, a patient trial is underway to test various medications and nerve blocks as potential treatment for post-traumatic headaches and nerve pain.
  • In December 2016, our Study launched an innovation challenge that called for innovative research questions for treating chronic pain.

COGNITION:

What we know:

  • Cognition is the ability to choose, understand, remember, and use information.

Why research is important:

  • Changes or problems with cognition can occur after a traumatic brain injury (TBI), affecting attention, concentration, speech and language, learning and memory, reasoning, planning, and problem solving.

What we are currently doing:

  • We have convened a working group to assess the mental, psychological, and cognitive health and wellbeing of former NFL players.
  • A Harvard researcher, Franziska Plessow, PhD, is studying player data from our first questionnaire to understand cognitive challenges among former NFL players, identifying possible connections between cognitive problems and depression and anxiety. More details will be forthcoming.

CTE/NEURODEGENERATION:

What we know:

  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is the term used to describe brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas.

Why research is important:

  • Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed with an autopsy by studying sections of the brain. By developing ways to diagnose this condition, patients might be able to receive accurate diagnoses. Treatment is needed to address the symptoms of brain diseases, and may potentially stop their progression.

What we are currently doing:

  • Harvard researchers Georges El Fakhri, PhD, and Michael Fox, MD, PhD, are developing scanning techniques to prevent, diagnose, and treat neurodegenerative diseases and their debilitating symptoms.
  • One of our researchers, Kun Ping Lu, MD, PhD, and his team are developing a potential antibody treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI), which may be used to treat neurodegeneration (currently being tested in animal models). This antibody works against a protein called “cis tau”, which is a substance that, when formed in the brain, can destroy brain cells.

CONCUSSION:

What we know:

  • In the 2015 season, the NFL reported 272 concussions, up 32 percent from 2014 (206) and 2013 (229). Concussion symptoms may include loss of consciousness, drowsiness, confusion, headache, nausea or vomiting, blurred vision, and/or loss of memory of events surrounding the injury.

Why research is important:

  • Since football players and other athletes may be at an increased risk for concussion, new solutions for prevention, diagnostics, and treatment are important to address this condition.

What we are currently doing:

  • Our researcher, Gary Strangman, PhD, is developing a wearable device for players that detects the brain’s movement in the skull while on the field, which will potentially help prevent concussions among players.

 

HEADACHES:

What we know: 

  • Post-traumatic headaches (PTH) are the most common complaint of football-related traumatic brain injury.

Why research is important: 

  • There is a need for new and alternatives to current treatments to reduce headache symptoms. Understanding the underlying causes of headaches may help researchers learn more about head, neck, and brain injuries.

What we are currently doing: 

  • Our researcher, Alyssa Lebel, MD, is testing potential treatments for headache and neck pain, including medications and a way to potentially stop pain by blocking the nerves.

SLEEP APNEA:

What we know:

  • Sleep apnea can occur during sleep, when soft tissue obstructs the airway and disturbs breathing. Often, the condition is not diagnosed or is misdiagnosed, and is left untreated.

Why research is important:

  • Improved solutions for sleep apnea are needed to help those affected by this condition. When treated, patients see improved performance, alertness, quality of life, mood, cognition, and heart health.

What we are currently doing:

  • We are supporting work on a potential treatment developed by Rox Anderson, MD. Using an injectable cold fluid, this potential treatment for sleep apnea targets fat cells in the neck, and is currently being tested in animal models.
  • In September 2016, our Study launched an innovation challenge that called for innovative solutions for sleep apnea.

MENTAL HEALTH:

What we know:

  • Current research in this area has shown that careers in professional football may be associated with long-term mental health problems.

Why research is important:

  • There is a need for improved solutions for prevention, screening and diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues specifically for football players.

What we are currently doing:

  • A Harvard researcher, Franziska Plessow, PhD, is researching how cognitive problems among former NFL players can be connected with depression and anxiety.

HEART:

What we know:

  • Many football players are strength-trained athletes, as opposed to endurance athletes, as they train for repetitive bursts of intense activity. Strength training may make the walls of the heart stiff and inflexible, which challenges the heart to work to fill with blood.

Why research is important:

  • It’s important to understand the long-term consequences of how strength training may affect the hearts of athletes.

What are we currently doing:

  • Our researcher, Aaron Baggish, MD, is studying how strength training may affect the hearts of athletes, including football players.


 
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FAQs

+ What is the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University?

The Football Players Health Study is working on prevention, diagnostics, and treatment strategies for the most common and severe conditions affecting professional football players. We are focused on the integrated health of football players, not solely one concern or condition. Our work is on the cutting edge, pushing innovative ideas forward and turning discovery into therapy. In addition, the Study is working to understand the legal and ethical issues that may promote or impede player well-being, and developing responsive recommendations to resolve them. In order to determine what these issues are and what is important to former players, we are gathering input and listening to them.

+ How is the Football Players Health Study different?

We are the largest Study to date of living former players, with over 3,700 participants as of July 2017. We are a comprehensive study that is examining all health concerns – in essence, becoming the “home” study for all former players. We are working to use the collective knowledge of former players and scientists, and to translate this into action, which will lead to improving the quality of life for football players. The Study is player-led and player-supported, and we intend to share results and new discoveries with you, the former players. We are not directed by any external agencies, and as a university we maintain independence and report the facts. We listen to former players and incorporate their input.

+ I’ve participated in studies before and have never seen results. How is this Study different?

Research takes time, but we aim to recruit thousands of former players and move through aspects of the Study quickly, gathering as much data as possible and sharing early findings with you. Your continued participation in the Study is critical, so we keep the research focused on what is most important to players.

+ What does it mean to join the Study? What do I have to do?

We already have a few activities former and active players can take part in, whether it’s filling out a questionnaire or participating in an interview. As we expand our research studies and address specific conditions and patterns, we will gather information that will transform the health and quality of life for former players. Please visit the Participate page or contact our study staff to get started.

+ What about privacy and confidentiality? How is the information I share with you protected?

The privacy of our participants is of utmost importance to our research team. We have taken precautions to ensure that your data and any information you share with us are kept private, and your information is stored in a secure academic research database. We will not identify you in any publication or presentation without your permission. Confidentiality is critical and central to the Study. We rely on the legal expertise of Harvard Law School to insure that privacy and confidentiality is protected. All of our staff are trained to work with highly confidential information, and abide by strict standards.

+ With whom is my information shared?

Only a limited number of Harvard researchers have access to the information you share with us. Your personal information will not be shared with the NFLPA or the NFL. We are not a part of current lawsuits or settlements. We are not a part of any insurance plans, and all information you share is separate from your medical records.

+ How is the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University funded?

The Study was developed by players, for players. It began in 2014 in part through an award from the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA). The Study largely utilizes funds allocated for research by the collective bargaining agreement. Many of the resources utilized by this initiative are shared across supporting Harvard institutions.

Harvard’s study is an independent research study. The research is not directed by the NFL, NFLPA, or any other stakeholder, nor do any of these organizations exercise control over the research direction, findings, or recommendations.

The NFLPA is supporting the Study research activities with a $56M award for a seven-year period (2014-2021).

+ How does Harvard University benefit from conducting this Study? What’s in it for the researchers?

Other than advancing our scientific understanding of player health, Harvard University does not gain any specific benefits from conducting this Study. Our faculty and research teams are honored to be part of this landmark Study, and have a passion for health and wellness. As professional researchers, we have strict conflict of interest policies to ensure the integrity of our work. We seek to earn the trust of former players trust through our many activities and endeavors, and never take that privilege for granted.