Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has dominated headlines, at least in the sports world, for the last few weeks. In a recent study, researchers examined the donated brains of 111 former players in the National Football League. The results were stunning: 110 of those brains showed signs of CTE.
The shockwave of this discovery was almost immediate. Two days after the study was released, Baltimore Ravens’ offensive lineman John Urschel announced his retirement. At age 26, he was only three years into his NFL career. But, he has a promising career ahead of him in mathematics — he’s already published two papers in mathematics journals during his time at MIT during the offseason. He made the decision to preserve his brain power by hanging up his cleats.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also responded to the study, saying, “The average NFL player lives five years longer than you. So their lifespan is actually longer and healthier. And I think because of all the advancements, including the medical care, that number is going to even increase for them.”
Goodell has a history of downplaying the severity of concussions and CTE in the league, and his message has remained consistent.
While CTE is most often discussed in relation to professional football, some are wondering if they are at risk for the disease, especially if they’ve gotten a concussion before. To answer that, it’s important to first understand what CTE really is.
A Brief Explanation of CTE
Chances are, you’ve heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and at least know the basics of the disease. It’s caused by repeated head trauma, a.k.a. concussions. This repeated trauma triggers two conditions. One, it causes the brain to slowly deteriorate. Two, it causes the buildup of tau protein — which is also one of the main causes of age-related dementia.
As CTE progresses, victims may experience a host of symptoms, including:
- Memory loss
- Suicidal thoughts
- Parkinson’s disease
- Issues with impulse control
- Impaired judgement
- Progressive dementia
For some, these symptoms may set in a few years after their last brain trauma. For others, they may not set in for decades. But once they do, it’s currently impossible to cure or reverse CTE. What’s more, even if patients exhibit clear signs of the disease, it’s impossible to truly diagnose until the brain is autopsied after death.
Who’s at Risk?
CTE is most often associated with professional football players, boxers and other athletes. But, they aren’t the only ones at risk. Recently, CTE has been linked to many different categories of people who suffered repeated head trauma in their lives, such as military veterans. Those who played contact sports in their youth could also be at risk. Football players, soccer players and hockey players specifically who didn’t play past high school or college have been noted for experiencing symptoms of CTE.
In recent years, the revelation of the severe and widespread nature of CTE has caused many high schools to disband their football teams. Some experts are also calling for tackling to be eliminated from youth leagues. For those who will continue playing youth contact sports, protective gear manufacturers continue to develop safer pads and helmets to reduce the side effects of being tackled.
What About Concussions from Car Wrecks?
For those who have been in a car wreck or some other kind of accident that caused a concussion, there is good news: CTE is believed to be caused by repeated head trauma. While the specific number of concussions needed to trigger CTE is still unknown, it most likely is greater than just one or two. However, that doesn’t mean a single concussion isn’t dangerous.
Depending on the nature of the concussion, it could have long-term effects, especially if it’s not treated correctly. Most often, the recommended treatment for a mild traumatic brain injury (a concussion) is rest to give the brain time to heal. However, if the brain is not completely healed and another concussion occurs, it could have long-term consequences. This is most often seen in athletes who try to get back on the field too quickly after a head injury.
Regardless of the cause, if you suffer a concussion, you should be evaluated by a medical professional as soon as possible. A doctor can evaluate the extent of the injury and prescribe the right treatment plan to make sure your brain fully heals properly. Otherwise, you could be putting yourself at risk for greater injury — though probably not CTE.