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Understanding CTE

In the sports world, there’s quite a buzz about CTE, so I think it’s something we should chat about it. Recent medical studies released have parents paying closer attention to this discussion and asking questions about the well being of their children that play youth sports. Let’s take a look at what CTE is and what we know about it.

Paige Havens

CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) is a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. CTE was first identified in 1928 and was known as dementia pugilistic or “punch drunk syndrome” associated with boxing. In 2002 Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered and published findings of a similar degenerative disease (CTE) in the brains of former pro football players. His discovery prompted researchers to explore what other vulnerable populations there might be to this medical condition, such as military veterans.

The Concussion Legacy Foundation, one of the leading institutions funding CTE research, reports on their website that the best evidence available today suggests CTE is not caused by any single injury, but instead it is caused by years of regular, repetitive brain trauma. Most people with CTE suffered hundreds or thousands of head impacts over the course of many years, not just a handful of concussions. The evidence further shows subconcussive impacts or hits to the head that don’t cause full-blown concussions, as the most significant factor.

In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death through brain tissue analysis. What this means is that the only brains we are studying are those of people who choose to donate their brains for post-mortem examination to support this research. The majority of brains being donated are those of former athletes and military personnel because of the strong connections found in these professions. As we read studies that report that 99% of studied brains from deceased NFL players have CTE, we need to keep those numbers in perspective.That was a study of just 202 brains of a very specific population of people.

We can’t assume that everyone that plays football or serves in the military will suffer from CTE.

The reality is there are many individuals who suffer years of head impacts but do not develop CTE. Research has yet to determine who is susceptible and who is not. It’s like trying to predetermine who will develop cancer over their lifetime or not. Researchers and physicians are only beginning to understand CTE.

As parents struggle with the decision to let their children play sports because of the threat of CTE, I encourage you to act on the best available evidence today. What we know is that there is a risk we need to be aware of, but there is still much to learn. We need to take concussions more seriously, recognizing they are traumatic brain injuries. We need to know the signs and symptoms, get base-line tests, and be more diligent about making sure our children play in environments that take concussion seriously. We need to make sure their equipment fits right, they are learning safe techniques, and be sure we aren’t asking more of our kids on the field than their bodies can safely handle. There are so many great benefits to youth sports that help them live healthy, happy lives. Don’t shy away. But be mindful of the research as concussion science evolves and be head smart!