Have you ever had a concussion? Even if you haven’t, chances are you've heard the term CTE. But what do we really know about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy? Is this something you should worry about if you've had a concussion?
CTE is a brain disease that can only be diagnosed after death (i.e., postmortem). There is currently no drug test that can tell if you have signs of CTE. It has been hypothesized that a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan can be used to diagnose CTE, but the specificity of this test is not high enough to determine with certainty whether someone has the brain disorder or not.
In a postmortem dissection, CTE can be diagnosed based upon an accumulation of Tau proteins, specifically around the areas where cerebrospinal fluid had flowed throughout the brain. You may have heard of Tau protein before. The tangles of these proteins are similarly found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, many of what are described as symptoms of CTE are also symptoms of Alzheimers. These can include memory issues, moodiness/mood changes, headaches and anxiety.
Most importantly, there is no link between increased episodes of concussion and the presence of CTE. Despite a New York Times article stating that 110 out of 111 NFL football players had CTE, the diagnostic criteria for CTE remains unclear. This article did not mention the amount of Tau present in each brain. There might have been the presence of only a few tangles in the dissection that resulted in a diagnosis of CTE.
Moreover, the 2017 research study referenced in this article failed to mention if there were any clinical signs or symptoms that were similar among the people (premortem) whose brains were later studied. Additionally, all of the brains in the study were donated, which could have inherently biased the population. This study was also performed by a CTE research group, and was not independently researched.
Ultimately, while we know that contact sports do increase our risk of head injuries and concussions, more research has to be done before we can say that football, soccer, or any sport increases our likelihood for developing CTE. We shouldn’t necessarily avoid an activity or exercise just because we sustained a concussion. More importantly, we should learn and practice safe training techniques to reduce our risk of injury.
As a physical therapist, I can provide valuable education, specific exercises and training techniques to help prevent these injuries. For those who do sustain a concussion, rehabilitation can be key to helping the brain recover.
To learn more about this topic, check out my previous blog post explaining what is happening inside the head during and after a concussion.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.