The violence in boxing has led many people to question whether the sport is safe enough for people to participate in it. People have died as a result of head trauma from boxing, and some have questioned whether long-term brain damage happens as a result of the constant forces that impact the head. In 2010 and 2011, researchers began tracing the long-term effects of the sport on the brain and the course of brain damage throughout a fighter's life.
Death Due to Brain Trauma
In the journal article entitled “Boxing – Acute Complications and Late Sequalae,” Hans Forstl, M.D. and his team of researchers in Germany reported that there have been an average of 10 boxing deaths per year since 1900. Of these deaths, over 80 percent were due to head and neck injuries suffered in the ring. These injuries included ruptures in brain vessels, epidural hemorrhages and subdural hematomas, in which bleeding occurs in the brain.
Brain Damage in Boxers
According to BBC Health, brain damage may happen immediately, which can lead to death, or it can occur gradually over time due to the sustained trauma to the head. They state that a chemical called neurofilament light, which is released when nerve cells are damaged, is four times higher than normal in boxers after a fight. It can be up to eight times higher when there have been more than 15 high-impact hits to the head. Although boxers can recover from some injuries, brain tissue that becomes damaged remains damaged.
In addition to permanent brain damage, noticeable cognitive deficits have been found in many boxers. According to the study by Forstl’s team of researchers, a comparison of 82 amateur boxers found that those who had been knocked out performed significantly worse in visual-spatial and mathematics exercises afterward. In addition, 18 professional boxers had significantly impaired performance in information processing and verbal fluency one month after a knockout.
Although much is known about permanent brain damage in boxers, there is still little known about the course of neurodegenerative diseases throughout boxers' careers. However, researchers have found that severe traumatic brain injury in boxers has been linked to dementia pugilistica. This clinical syndrome has been linked to increased tau proteins in the brain, which are associated with dementia, Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's. Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest fighter of all time, has suffered from Parkinson's Disease; he is perhaps the most famous example of the neurodegenerative issues present in ex-fighters.
- "Los Angeles Times"; New Study to Assess Brain Damage in Professional Fighters; Lance Pugmire; July 2011
- "BBC Health"; Boxing; Trisha McNair; January 2011
- "Deutsches Ärzteblatt International"; Boxing—Acute Complications and Late Sequelae; Hans Forstl, et. al; June 2010
- "The New England Journal of Medicine"; Traumatic Brain Injury — Football, Warfare, and Long-Term Effects; Steven T. DeKosky, M.D., et. al; 2010 (.pdf)