Man diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at 36 after whiplash caused by heading football led to brain trauma

Doctors think a whiplash injury from heading a football caused brain trauma (Image: PA Archive)
A semi-professional footballer says an injury caused by heading a football during training caused him to develop Parkinson’s disease at just 36.

Matt Dimbylow clashed heads with another player during a game, which doctor believed caused some kind of brain trauma.

But now, the 47-year-old, who was plagued by mood swings and confusion as a result of his medication for the degenerative condition, has decided to try to manage the disease with exercise instead of drugs.

Matt, from Sandiway, Cheshire, said: “When I was diagnosed, it was really difficult. I was a dad to two girls – Lauren, now 16, and Ella, now 14 and I was still very young.

“But continuing to exercise has kept me strong and now my intensive regime has meant I have been able to avoid the side effects and I feel like I am in control of the condition.”

Matt is speaking out to raise awareness of Parkinson’s, at a time when former England footballer Alan Shearer has turned the focus on head injuries in sport and the link to brain conditions in later life, in his TV documentary, Dementia, Football and Me.

Matt, with his wife Emma (Image: PA Real Life)
A member of the English Universities football team in the 1990s, at the time of his injury – sustained after he and another player knocked heads – Matt was a semi-professional football player.

He explained: “I was involved in an accidental clash of heads. Doctors think it was a whiplash-type injury that caused some brain trauma.

“I started experiencing some strange symptoms like tiredness, muscle aches and spasms and a loss of sensation on the left side of my face, over the course of the next few months, so I saw my GP.”

Concerned by his symptoms, doctors started testing for other conditions.

“They were testing for all sorts of things,” he recalled. “They thought it might be lyme disease, as I live near a forest with deer and they are known to be carriers. They were doing MRI scans and all sorts of tests, but they didn’t have a diagnosis,” he said.

Matt now manages the disease with exercise – and runs 25 miles a week (Image: PA Real Life)
It wasn’t until 2007 that doctors finally discovered Matt had extrapyramidal syndrome, a variant of Parkinson’s.

Matt said: “No one expected it, because I was so young. But, by the time of the diagnosis, I knew it was something to do with my brain.”

His teacher wife Emma, 47, admits she had always thought of Parkinson’s as an old person’s condition.

She added: “I think when we got the diagnosis, it didn’t sink in straight away.

“I had always thought of Parkinson’s as an older person’s disease.

“We were upset at the time, but we had two young children and life had to go on. We had to throw ourselves back into that.”

Alan Shearer being tested in Dementia, Football and Me (Image: BBC)
Matt was started on medication almost immediately, to try to control his symptoms and prevent further degeneration.

He said: “Initially, the medication worked really well for me and I was on quite a low dose, but we found out that the longer I was on it, the more it started to disagree with me and I was having to take stronger and stronger doses.”

In 2008, Matt – desperate to get back to the game he loved – became involved in Paralympic sport.

He was honoured to represent the Great Britain at the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics, as part of the seven-a-side team for athletes with cerebral palsy, or acquired brain trauma.

“I quickly learnt how beneficial keeping up exercise was,” he said. “It helped my body stay fit and 10 years on, doctors were amazed at how well I was doing.

“I had been told that within the first decade, my quality of life would be severely affected, but I am doing so much better than anyone expected. I started to discuss with my consultant how I could continue to use exercise to reduce my medication but I knew I needed to do it in a controlled way.”

Alan Shearer is calling on the FA to do more to take care of players after a number of footballers developed dementia after their careers (Image: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Then, 18 months ago, Matt suggested to his consultant that an intensive exercise regime could be used as an alternative to his medication for Parkinson’s, which affects 145,000 people – around one in 350 of the adult population – in the UK.

He explained: “I suffered from a short temper and struggled to concentrate, because of the medication.

“I felt quite guilty about my moods. I knew they were caused by the medication, but it was hard.

“If I got something in my head, I had to go and do it right then, no matter what I was doing. That was really hard to live with.”

Matt now runs at least 25 miles a week, spread over at least four days, and has noticed a massive change.

He said: “Physically, not taking the medication has had a bit of an effect.

“I can’t run quite as fast, or as far, and I have to time things, so I do them when I’m feeling well enough. The biggest benefit is the change in the cognitive side of things.”

Emma agrees that the positive benefits of being medication free have outweighed the negatives.

She added: “He doesn’t have that boost from the medication, so he is slower to get going in the morning.

“But he is coping with that but the mental side of things so much better, which is a much bigger benefit, as he is more himself again.

“The side effects of his drugs would make him short tempered and obsessive.

“Now I feel like I have him back again, which is a massive benefit for our family.”

Muhammad Ali (left) developed a form of Parkinson’s disease (Image: Popperfoto)

Professor David Dexter, Deputy Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK, the UK’s leading charity supporting those with the condition, said: “Head injuries do have a significant risk factor for Parkinson’s. Muhammad Ali had a form of the disease and it is commonly known that boxers can develop the disease.

“There is strong evidence that people who suffer repeated head trauma can develop the disease later on in life or trauma to the head can act as trigger for those who are already high risk and cause them to experience symptoms earlier.

“It’s becoming more and more common to use exercise to treat Parkinson’s disease. It was dismissed to begin with, but there are studies that show that there are benefits, such as increasing the protein in the brain to prevent further decline.

“This is great, especially in the early stages of the disorder, before movement is affected too much, but even in the later stages, because as much movement as possible is important.

“Anyone with Parkinson’s who would is considering making any changes to their medication or treatment should discuss how to do it safely with their doctors.”

MUST Parkinson’s UK’s mission is to find a cure and improve life for everyone affected by the condition, through cutting edge research, information, support and campaigning.


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