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Change to NFL concussion protocol brings awareness to Ataxia

Those who follow American football probably already know that the NFL and NFL Players Association recently announced changes to the NFL concussion protocol. That change is bringing awareness to ataxia. Tua Tagovailoa, Quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, was injured during a game on September 25th versus the Buffalo Bills. He cleared concussion protocol and returned to the game. Tagovailoa was injured again on October 6th, resulting in his leaving the game on a stretcher. He was later diagnosed with a concussion and the doctor who cleared him to return to the game on September 25th was fired. 

On October 8th, the NFL and NFLPA released a joint statement about the review of Tua Tagovailoa’s Concussion Protocol and subsequent change to their policy. As a result of their review, the diagnosis of “ataxia” has been added as a mandatory “no-go” symptom that would prevent a player from re-entering a game following a head injury. 

Prior to that announcement, some people had never even heard the word “ataxia.” Now, ataxia is being discussed in mainstream media, bringing much-needed awareness to the symptoms that are also common in a group of rare diseases.

Understanding ataxia caused by concussion

Ataxia describes an impairment of coordinated movement resulting from brain or nerve dysfunction. Many symptoms of ataxia mimic the effects of excessive drinking, such as slurred speech, imbalance, stumbling, falling, and difficulty with fine motor skills. 

Ataxia is common in individuals who have a head injury, such as a severe concussion. The ataxia symptoms resulting from a concussion can be
short- or long-term.


Image listing symptoms of Ataxia

How football brought awareness to ataxia

Concussions are a common sports injury, particularly in football. Tua Tagovailoa’s unfortunate injuries brought attention to the importance of assessing ataxia symptoms in patients.

“Ataxia is an under-recognized sign of neurological dysfunction,” stated Dr. George Wilmot III, Associate Professor of Neurology at Emory University following the announcement. “The NFL’s formal acknowledgment of ataxia as a possible sign of head trauma should lead to reduced risk of permanent damage for NFL players. It also has the added benefit of shining a public spotlight on other diseases that have ataxia as one of their primary features.”  

Other causes of ataxia

Although the term “ataxia” might be new to many football fans, it is nothing new for the individuals and families affected by rare, often hereditary diseases. In addition to traumatic brain injury, ataxia can be caused by rare genetic and autoimmune syndromes, exposure to a toxic substance, vitamin deficiency, or alcoholism. 

The National Ataxia Foundation was established to help persons affected by Ataxia and their families. We work closely with the world’s leading Ataxia researchers, promoting exchanges of ideas and innovation in Ataxia discovery. Our programs that fund Ataxia research and provide support services for affected families are aimed to help accelerate the development of treatments and a cure while working to improve the lives of those living with Ataxia.

"Ataxia symptoms can greatly impact an individual’s ability to perform everyday tasks, including the ability to walk, talk, eat, and work. Regardless of whether ataxia arises in a professional athlete or a friend or family member, it is important to consult a neurologist to understand the underlying causes of symptoms and seek the best treatment options."

If you are a member of the press and looking for more information, download our concussion-related ataxia media kit or contact Communications Director Stephanie Lucas to schedule an interview with an Ataxia expert. 

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