Experts see former Ohio State QB Justin Fields' epilepsy diagnosis as manageable in NFL
Former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields will not be the first player to manage epilepsy in the NFL after he is selected in next week’s draft.
A handful of others have gone through the league while also treating the neurological disorder, a group known to included All-Pro running back Tiki Barber, Hall of Fame offensive lineman Alan Faneca, All-Pro cornerback Samari Rolle and running back Jason Snelling.
Though the medical condition is most often characterized by recurring seizures, experts who spoke with The Dispatch say it is not a barrier to a professional career.
“As long as people are doing well, and the medications help them, there really are no contraindications to playing a sport,” said Dr. Emily Klatte, OhioHealth’s system medical chief for epilepsy, “and I think that's a false perception out there.”
Few details are known about Fields’ condition.
His diagnosis became public this week following a news report that confirmed he had informed teams about it during pre-draft interviews. Fields has not spoken publicly about his prognosis.
But it does appear to be a favorable one.
The NFL Network reported Fields was first diagnosed with epilepsy during his childhood and has seen symptoms ease in recent years. By taking proper medication, he does not have seizures.
“It sounds like he's already doing everything he should be doing to make himself successful,” Klatte said. “Things in general that can lead to seizures occurring more frequently are sleep deprivation, missing medication doses, stress sometimes. So I think any athlete just needs to work on those factors and know for their personal case what makes things worse and try to avoid those triggers.”
Fields was not known to have had any setbacks during his two seasons at Ohio State, where he led the Buckeyes to a 20-2 record and consecutive appearances in the College Football Playoff, emerging as a top prospect in the draft.
In a tweet following the health revelation, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day wrote in support of the quarterback, “Justin’s health, toughness and work ethic have never been an issue and I am incredibly proud of his professionalism and the character he displays on and off the field. The fact that he never missed a game at Ohio State speaks volumes about how he takes care of himself.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say about 3.4 million people in the country manage epilepsy, about 1 out of 26 people, and the forms vary widely.
Dr. Imran Ali, the chair of the department of neurology at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences, says between 60% and 70% have “well-controlled” seizures by following recommended medicine schedules.
“So a large number of those individuals, even though they have that diagnosis, may not be having seizures and can do whatever their professional career is without any disruptions,” Ali added.
Though a football career might seem likely to pose risk for people with epilepsy, triggering symptoms due to the potential hits to the head, experts said there was no evidence to support the perception among the public.
“We are not aware of any increased risk for seizures getting worse simply from playing a contact sport,” Klatte said.
She pointed to a 2014 study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports that found “no significant evidence” that contact sports were harmful for those who were treating epilepsy.
According to the NFL Network report, Fields’ symptoms have subsided enough over recent years that doctors see a possibility for him to outgrow the condition later in his 20s. Last month, Fields turned 22.
Dr. William Bell, a neurologist who leads the epilepsy division at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, sees it as a realistic path for patients.
Bell also has firsthand experience.
While he was a young boy, he experienced seizures while managing epilepsy. Then he stopped around the time he turned 10, and he no longer needed medication.
“It’s really common,” he said.