Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease associated with repetitive brain injuries. First recognized in boxers in the 1920s as “punch drunk syndrome,” the condition is now recognized as frighteningly common in contact sports like football. 

CTE has some similarities with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. This fatal condition has no known treatment, and it can currently only be diagnosed post-mortem.

What Is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

In 1927, two physicians forwarded the concept that concussions are not simply a temporary condition and may have chronic or long-term effects. Pathologist Dr. Martland described a condition called “punch drunk syndrome” in boxers the following year. He suggested that head injuries can cause changes to the brain that lead to long-term neurological effects.

For decades, similar findings were documented, but there were very few confirmed cases until 2005. This is when evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy was found posthumously in Mike Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steeler. 

Around the same time, the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the UNITE Brain Bank were formed. The Brain Bank was the first repository dedicated to CTE research and continues to help researchers learn more about CTE in athletes and veterans.

CTE and the NFL Concussion Settlement

CTE came into the spotlight as the NFL began facing litigation and public criticism. The NFL spent years denying and covering up the link between football-related concussions and long-term disorders. Even as recently as 2004, the NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee suggested that “NFL players have evolved to a state where their brains are less susceptible to injury.”

In 2017, two studies found that the majority of tested brains of former NFL players had CTE: 110 out of 111 in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and 90 out of 94 in another study.

Multiple former NFL players who committed violent crimes or committed suicide were found to have CTE, including: 

  • Aaron Hernandez, found guilty and then acquitted for two homicides who died by suicide
  • Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend before committing suicide in 2012
  • Phillip Adams, who fatally shot sick people and then killed himself in 2021

The landmark 2015 NFL concussion settlement was brought by more than 4,500 former players and families for brain injuries. It’s paid out more than $1 billion in settlements.

How Common Is CTE?

A growing body of research shows that CTE may be more common than anyone suspected just a few decades ago. A recent study examining the rate of CTE looked at medical records and samples from 300 contact sports athletes and 450 nonathletes. Nearly 6% of brains studied had at least some signs of CTE, if not all. 

In a 2023 study, 152 brains of athletes who played contact sports and died before 30 were examined. 40% had CTE, even though most only played amateur sports. 80% of athletes with CTE only played at the amateur level, and 75% played football. The most common cause of death among athletes in the study was suicide, followed by accidental drug overdose. 

Every new study released seems to suggest that CTE pathology begins long before symptoms are apparent. The longer the athletic career, the greater the risk. 

What Are the Symptoms of CTE?

Medical experts and researchers still don’t know how or when CTE develops. We do not have a list of symptoms that can be clearly linked to the disorder. Generally, however, CTE takes years or decades to become obvious. 

Symptoms of CTE usually fall under four broad categories: 

  • Behavioral changes: CTE can cause increasingly aggressive and impulsive behavior. CTE may manifest as extreme changes to personality and behavior, such as violent outbursts. 
  • Emotional changes or mood disorders: People with CTE frequently develop mood swings, frustration, and serious mood disorders, including depression and suicidal thoughts. Substance abuse and alcoholism appear to be common. 
  • Impaired motor function: CTE may result in parkinsonism characterized by trouble speaking, slow movement, and shaking. Difficulty walking and poor balance are common problems. Motor neuron disease can be a result of CTE, which affects speaking, swallowing, breathing, and other motor functions. 
  • Impaired cognition: CTE may result in memory loss and trouble with thinking, planning, organization, and concentration. 

Researchers currently think there are two forms of CTE. Early-onset CTE usually presents symptoms in the victim’s 20s and 30s. These symptoms are typically emotional and behavioral. 

The other form of CTE causes symptoms to develop later in age. It’s marked by motor control and cognitive impairment that progresses to dementia. 

What Causes CTE and Who Is At Risk?

It’s believed that repeated brain trauma like concussions, subconcussive blows, or serious brain injuries causes CTE. It’s suspected that repetitive injuries trigger a buildup of tau protein. Bundles of tau are associated with related conditions like Alzheimer’s, but CTE results in a unique pattern of tau in the brain. 

It appears that anyone who suffers repetitive brain trauma may be at risk of developing CTE, including military members and victims of physical abuse. Athletes seem to be most at risk. 

Sports and activities with the highest risk of trauma linked to CTE include: 

  • Boxing
  • Martial arts
  • American football
  • Soccer
  • Wrestling
  • Hockey
  • Rugby
  • Lacrosse
  • Skateboarding

Certain positions in football have a higher risk of concussions and CTE. Linemen have the greatest amount of helmet-to-helmet contact that’s conducive to CTE. Quarterback and linebacker positions are also at a high risk of high-speed blows to the head. 

CTE Prevention and Treatment

There is no known way to prevent CTE. Not even helmets can prevent concussions or the effects of head trauma. We also have no way to treat CTE or even diagnose the condition prior to death. Currently, the best we can do is rule out other causes of symptoms associated with CTE. 

Traumatic encephalopathy syndrome (TES) can be diagnosed prior to death. TES is believed to be the clinical presentation of CTE and the chronic effects of brain trauma. However, a diagnosis does little for sufferers other than confirming their fears. 

The only medical options for TES and suspected CTE focus on managing symptoms like depression and aggression. 

With a growing body of research into CTE, we are realizing that anyone can develop this degenerative condition, not just professional athletes. Even those who suffer a second concussion or head injury after a previous injury, no matter how serious, may be at risk, including survivors of car accidents and falls

CTE is just one of many potential long-term consequences of a brain injury, whether it happens in sports, on the job, or in a traumatic accident. Because even mild brain injuries can have serious long-term effects, it’s important to make sure your rights are protected if you are involved in an accident. 

Contact the Columbus Brain Injury Lawyers at Mark Casto Personal Injury Law Firm Today

If you were injured in an accident in Columbus, GA, and need legal help, contact our Columbus Brain Injury accident lawyers at Mark Casto Personal Injury Law Firm to schedule a free case review today.

Mark Casto Personal Injury Law Firm
233 12th St #808, Columbus, GA 31901
(706) 940-4030