It probably comes as no surprise to anyone involved in contact sports that the risk of getting a concussion while playing those sports is high.
A concussion is a form of traumatic brain injury that is caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head. It can also be caused by a hit or blow to the body that causes the head and brain to rapidly move back and forth. One of the more serious dangers of contact sports are repeated concussions. Repeated concussions, even mild ones, can leave a person vulnerable to developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
A degenerative brain condition associated with continued blows to the head over a period of years, CTE is commonly found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repeated brain trauma. With CTE, a protein called tau forms in clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. Over time, CTE can lead to issues such as memory loss, learning issues, personality changes, behavioral changes, depression, aggression, and even dementia.
Research has shown that repeated mild concussions, especially when they occur in close succession, have resulted in cumulative, long-lasting impairment of brain function.
Most people with CTE have suffered hundreds, if not thousands, of head impacts over the course of many years playing contact sports (or other activities like serving in the military). It’s not just full-blown concussions that cause CTE. In fact, research shows that subconcussive impacts, or hits to the head that don’t cause full-blown concussions, are one of the biggest factors leading to CTE.
Symptoms of CTE
There is no definitive way of knowing if you have CTE (other than by autopsy after a person dies). However, there are symptoms that are common among people with CTE.
Early symptoms usually appear when a patient is in their late 20s or early 30s and show up as changes in behavior and mood such as aggression, depression, paranoia, and impulse control.
As the disease progresses, usually when a patient is in their 40s or 50s, it begins to affect memory and learning, impairs judgement, causes confusion, and can eventually lead to dementia.
Even if a patient suffers no additional head trauma, symptoms usually tend to worsen over time.
Which Athletes Are Most at Risk?
CTE is most common among tackle football players (because of hits to the helmet). Other at-risk sports include boxing (punches to the head), ice hockey (fighting, checking), and soccer (headers and collisions).
Not everyone who suffers repetitive hits to the head will develop CTE.
There are important risk factors that play a role in one’s tendency to develop CTE such as age of first exposure to head impacts. Athletes who begin playing contact sports at younger ages – especially under the age of 12 – are at greater risk for developing CTE. The length of exposure to head impacts also makes a difference. People with longer careers in contact sports are at a greater risk for more severe cases of CTE.
The best way to prevent CTE is to avoid situations that may cause concussions. Granted, for those in contact sports, that may be rather difficult. Research has, however, shown that allowing more time to recover between concussions lowers the likelihood of long-term impairment of brain function.
If you think you or a loved one may have traumatic brain injury or repeated concussions that have led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), there is help available. The doctors and staff at Front Range Spine and Neurosurgery in Colorado are experts in the field of neurosurgery. To request an appointment, call (303) 790-1800 or use our appointment request form.