The NFL’s so-called concussion crisis is quickly becoming a ‘CTE crisis’ as more and more former players are diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. But, CTE was only discovered recently and many don’t understand exactly what it is. Let’s go through the basics you need to know to understand the disease affecting countless athletes around the world.
Concussions Aren’t The Whole Story
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy was initially associated with repeated concussions, but more recent research suggests there is more to the equation. Most scientists now believe CTE can be caused by repeated hits of almost any magnitude, including sub-concussive hits to the head.
While concussions and traumatic brain injury may make the brain more vulnerable to CTE, the disease itself is believed to be caused by a buildup of abnormal tau proteins that are caused by the sloshing around of the brain during a hard impact – not necessarily a concussion.
The natural reaction to discovering rampant brain injury-related problems in football is to look for better, possibly harder helmets to absorb the forces from an impact. Unfortunately, it appears helmets can do little to stop the damage from subconcussive hits. No technology currently available can stop the rotational forces that occur within the head during an impact which jostles the brain and is believed to contribute to the development of tau proteins.
Think of your brain as Jell-O and your helmet is a hard container around it. If you shake the Jell-O, it will still jiggle and rip apart no matter how strong the container is. The same can be said for your brain during an impact, even if you are wearing a strong head covering.
CTE Isn’t Limited To Football
Yes, the NFL has brought CTE into the public awareness, but football players are not the only ones who have to be concerned. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has already been diagnosed in boxers, as well as soccer and baseball players. It is also believed to be common in military veterans. CTE can only be diagnosed through post-mortem autopsy, so shedding light into exactly who is at risk has been difficult. Which leads us to…
No One Knows How Common CTE IS
CTE has only recently been confirmed as a unique disease and cannot yet be accurately diagnosed in living adults. Unfortunately, that severely limits the ability to research how far the disease is spread in the general population and what factors put individuals at increased risk for developing CTE.
One of the few studies on the prevalence of CTE showed that 96% of former NFL players studied suffered from the disease, but even that study does little to say how common CTE is even within football. To be included in the study family members had to donate the brains of a loved one they thought may have CTE to medical research, so the rate of CTE was expected to be extremely high.
There Is Still A Long Way To Go
Awareness of CTE is increasing as it becomes a bigger part of the discussion about athlete health, but any cure or treatment for the condition seems far off at the moment. The next step for researchers is to find a reliable method of identifying the disease in living individuals, with hope it may provide insight to a potential treatment or cure.