by Kevin D. Heaton, DO

Junior Seau’s apparent suicide is yet another tragic story in a string of recent NFL player deaths. Seau was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home on Wednesday, May 2, 2012. Many people have speculated that he shot himself in the chest, rather than the head, so that his brain could be studied for signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease that is thought to be caused by repetitive brain trauma which can lead to problems including memory impairment, loss of impulse control, depression and dementia.

This is the 3rd former NFL player suicide in 15 months, the others being Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling. Dave Duerson’s brain was donated to Boston University researchers who confirmed advanced CTE findings on autopsy.  Seau had an incredible 20 years playing career in the NFL, over which he inevitably sustained repetitive and severe blows to the head.  These repetitive blows are thought to be the cause of CTE, which causes the buildup and deposition of an abnormal protein called Tau in the brain. Unfortunately, at this time there is no way to diagnose this disease in living athletes; it must be made by studying the brain tissue directly under a microscope.

Junior Seau’s death again raises the question and concerns over concussion and repetitive head injuries and their potential long-term effects. At this point it is unclear if Seau’s apparent suicide was related to CTE, concussions, or sub-concussive repetitive head injuries, but it is another reminder of the risks associated with such sports and that further research is needed.

Some statistics of former NFL players highlights the many challenges facing them when their playing days are over.

  • 65% of NFL players retire with permanent injuries.
  • Only 1/3 of retiring NFL players are college graduates.
  • More then half feel as though they have lost their purpose in life once removed from the game.
  • Half of the divorces in the NFL occur in the year following retirement.
  • The suicide rate among NFL players is nearly 6x the national average.

Kevin Heaton, DO is a Primary Care Sports Medicine physician at Access Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics.  He specializes in the non-operative treatment of musculokeletal pain and injuries and is the Director of the Sports Concussion Program at Access Sports Medicine.  For more information or to make an appointment call (603)775-7575 or visit