As you savor Buffalo Chicken Wings, watch commercials, and marvel at J.Lo and Shakira’s halftime show, new research presents a sobering truth about the health of soccer players who make the Super Bowl the spectacle Americans know and love.

Scientists know that repeated blows to the head – the kind of footballers who endure throughout a game – can lead to concussion and permanent brain damage. A 2017 study of the brains of deceased soccer players found that 99 percent of their brains showed signs of progressive degenerative disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

But beyond brain damage, repeated concussions can have another surprising health consequence: erectile dysfunction.

In an August 2019 study published in JAMA Neurology, researchers show that former soccer players who suffered multiple head injuries on the pitch were more likely to need erectile dysfunction medication or low testosterone later in life.

“Our research indicates a hormonal cascade that can be triggered by brain damage,” said Rachel Grashow, professor and senior researcher at Harvard University. Reverse.

The research stems from an ongoing study involving 3,400 participants, all of whom were at one point in time seasoned NFL players. Most participants are now in their early 50s, but the study included men as young as 24 and 89. On average, they had each played the game for about seven seasons. Players took a survey to measure how often they experienced concussion symptoms after being hit to the head. They were then grouped according to whether they had a very low, low, mild, or severe number of concussions. The researchers also noted whether a doctor or clinician had prescribed or recommended them to take medication for erectile dysfunction or testosterone levels at some point.

Overall, the players with the most severe concussion symptoms were twice as likely suffer from erectile dysfunction than those with the less severe symptoms.

“I was surprised at the strength of the association between concussion symptoms and erectile dysfunction and low testosterone – it persisted even when we controlled for other factors that can cause someone to suffer. erectile dysfunction. [erectile dysfunction] or low testosterone. “Grashow said.

Linking the brain, footballers and sexual health

The research is part of a larger effort by the university to study the health risks and benefits associated with playing American football.

The soccer player health study involves studying “the whole player and his entire life,” Grashow said in an interview with Learning about the JAMA network.

“We wanted to look at aspects of sexual health in this setting because we know it impacts quality of life,” said Grashow.

“It seemed like a really good opportunity to dig in and determine if we saw the same or similar relationships with erectile dysfunction and pituitary dysfunction in a large group of elite athletes with multiple head injuries,” said she declared.

The new research confirms the previous findings. Smaller studies of professional athletes and larger samples from non-athletes suggest that brain damage can lead to both erectile dysfunction and problems with the pituitary gland – the part of the brain that controls testosterone.

Another 2018 study from Taiwan also suggests that a single traumatic brain injury is associated with erectile dysfunction.

But how exactly does being touched cause hormonal imbalance?

The pituitary may be the key, says Grashow. This “master gland” is connected to the rest of the brain by delicate tissue, containing vessels and neurons. Blows to the head can damage this connection.

“This gland is particularly vulnerable to mechanical trauma because of its location and structure,” she says.

When players are hit in the head, blood flow to the gland may be interrupted or neural connections disrupted. This ends up “starving” the pituitary gland of its blood supply, which interferes with its communication with the rest of the brain.

Potential remedies

On the court, players in certain positions are more likely to be injured – and changes to tackles may result in fewer concussions. But some experts believe that is not enough to protect the health of footballers, especially given the high rates of concussions in adolescents and their particular vulnerability to brain damage.

Research may cast a shadow over a beloved American sport, but highlighting these issues can lead to better results for current, former and future football players, the researchers say. This includes discussing issues such as sexual function in men, which tends to be stigmatized.

“The stigma around this topic is very strong, and we were concerned that there was underreporting,” Grashow said.

The research suffers from some confusion. A player who has suffered more blows to the head may have had other injuries that cause lasting physical pain, for example. In this case, a player may be prescribed opioid pain relievers, which are also associated with erection problems.

“Ours was a bridge study, so more work is needed, but it’s clear that something is happening, and future research should focus on elucidating key biological mechanisms,” Grashow said.

Ultimately, former gamers – or anyone – struggling with erectile function or testosterone levels should see a doctor, Grashow says.

“I am continually moved by the resilience, strength and focus of active and former professional football players. They are formidable athletes, and it is extremely gratifying for me to know that our research can play a role in protecting and l ‘improved player health and quality of life,’ she said.