The Truth About Football’s Connection to CTE

We know more about brain injuries than ever before — but there’s still much we don’t know.  

In light of football’s biggest game on Sunday, there has been more talk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by brain injury.

In CTE, as it is known, a protein called tau is deposited in the brain and causes deterioration. Symptoms can take years or decades to present. Some symptoms include memory loss or problems with impulse control. Often a person’s mood is affected. CTE, which there is no treatment for, will eventually cause dementia in sufferers.

Over the last few years, America’s favorite pastime has become synonymous with CTE, despite an established link to other contact sports for decades.

But this isn’t a fair coupling.

The countless media stories on football players suffering repeated concussions have caused many to make assumptions regarding concussions, a kind of traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head, and its relationship to CTE.  Some have called for American football to be banned.

CTE symptoms were first documented in boxers during the 1920s. And it’s not just football. Concussions and other brain injuries are sustained when playing hockey, soccer, and any other contact sport.

“There is still a lot we don’t know about CTE and why people develop it,” said Dr. Michal Vytopil, a neurologist with Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington. “Not everyone with a brain injury will go on to develop CTE.”

What we do know is that CTE is most often caused by repeated trauma to the brain. There also may be a genetic variant involved, but the studies are preliminary at this point.  

“What scares people is that they read in the media that concussions lead to CTE,” said Dr. Vytopil. “Concussions are very common so people may think a common leisure activity, like sports, is going to give them a debilitating disease later on. That is oversimplified.”

As many as 3.6 million concussions are diagnosed every year, according to the International Concussion Society.  

If you or your child gets a concussion or another head injury, it’s important to see a doctor.  

“Many people go on to recover from a concussion and not have further problems,” Dr. Vytopil.

It’s important to allow the injury to fully heal, which means participating in school or work, but possibly avoiding activities that put you at risk for a second injury.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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