Boxing & Parkinson's

Attack
A man is training in a boxing gym. (Image: shironosov/iStock/Getty Images)

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative brain condition that is directly linked to head injury and acute head trauma. The nature of boxing, where a fighter takes repeated, powerful punches to the head, leaves fighters at increased risk of Parkinson’s disease and other health risks. The Mayo Clinic says individuals who have suffered head injury are four times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than those who have never suffered head trauma.

Symptoms

Parkinson’s disease symptoms vary with each person and can be subtle and undetected for months or years, according to The Mayo Clinic. Parkinson's symptoms usually begin on one side of the body and develop onto the other. Physical disease symptoms include a tremor, slowed motion and rigid muscles, as well as impaired posture and balance. A famous example of these unfortunate symptoms is the legendary Muhammad Ali, who is often seen with his hands shaking in the media. Automatic body movements such as blinking and smiling are all impaired by Parkinson’s. Speech changes, such as slurring or slowed speech, and dementia are all symptoms as the disease progresses.

Causes

The Mayo Clinic reports that many Parkinson's disease symptoms are caused by the lack of a chemical messenger called dopamine in the brain. This occurs when the specific brain cells that produce dopamine die or become impaired. Research does not produce a clear cause but toxins, genetic mutations, and head injury or trauma are all reported as potential risk factors.

End of Career

The common media belief is that boxers who extend their career can take more and more punishment. Slowed reactions caused by age lead to more punishment being received and an increased risk of Parkinson’s. Many cite the extended career of Muhammad Ali; the physical beatings he took in the later years are seen as a leading cause of his poor physical condition after retirement.

Notable Cases

Famous retired boxers who suffer from Parkinson’s symptoms include the great Muhammad Ali, former world champion Floyd Patterson and Freddie Roach, who went on to become a world champion trainer after retiring. All of these fighters took great amounts of punishment toward the end of their careers.

Precautions

Parkinson’s and other negative health conditions suffered by fighters have led boxing to enforce stringent health protection measures. Amateur boxers are required to wear protective headgear. In professional boxing, a registered doctor is ringside for each sanctioned fight, and a referee is responsible for stepping in to stop the fight if one boxer takes a heavy amount of punishment.

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