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CTE: Not Just a NFL Concern, but a Sports Concern

Kailee Stobbe

Staff Writer ‘21

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive chronic disease in the brain that is found in people with a history of continual brain trauma, is often found in athletes. CTE has been a well covered and controversial issue at the professional football level, but has attracted less media coverage in other contact sports despite frequent cases. CTE is not an issue to take lightly, since it is a damaging brain injury that can take an athlete’s independence, personality and life away.

According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, at least one player has been diagnosed with CTE at 147 colleges in U.S. Of those 147, at least 26 schools have three documented cases. Researchers from the VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine also published a study finding 190 out of 202 former football players in college or the NFL had CTE, including 66 players showing evidence of CTE who only played college ball.

Most discussions CTE focus on the NFL, but it’s a problem that extends far beyond professional football. CTE is a problem for players at every level, including other contact sports, such as soccer, rugby and hockey. Yet the NFL is the driving force behind new research because of their huge budget, funding new studies and deepening the knowledge of CTE. The damage done to an athlete’s brain after multiple hits is alarming, and should raise concern in all medical and sports programs, prompting change in how brain injuries are handled.

Brian Wieder, M.D., a neurosurgeon who has been in practice for more than 20 years, has had close experience with head traumas in the sports industry, working for the Denver Broncos as their neurosurgeon from 2000-2006. Dr. Wieder was present at every game, evaluated players for physicals and was involved with the treatment and decision of athletes to return to the field.

“Medical professionals are not 100 percent sure continuous trauma causes CTE, but have identified an abnormal tau protein. This protein develops in the early stages, near the part of the brain traumatized, and spreads as time goes on, which is why it’s considered a chronic disease,” said Dr. Wieder, as he explained how this neurodegenerative disorder is very similar to Parkinsons and Alzheimers.

These tau proteins stop the brain from functioning, and have been connected to continuous hits and traumas, developing a relationship between CTE and the development of these proteins. Based on where the protein accumulates, the symptoms of CTE can vary. For example, aggression and impulsiveness is linked to hits to the frontal lobe, and memory loss is linked with hits to the the temporal lobe. Dr.Wieder also suspects a factor other than brain trauma is in play, with some people possibly being at a higher risk due to minor anatomic differences, hereditary susceptibility and genetics.

Additionally, chronic traumatic encephalopathy causes symptoms, such as memory loss, impulsive behavior, bad judgment, aggression, depression, paranoia, emotional instability, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts or behaviors. First discovered in boxers, CTE was initially referred to as “punch drunk” because of these athletes’ continuous head trauma.

Unfortunately, CTE cannot be diagnosed until after the person dies and the brain can be inspected. With no cure or treatment available for CTE, athletes need to consider their lives outside of sports, and note that the damage they may encounter on the field will change who they are as a person in a negative way, if not kill them in the process.

“In American sports, athletes need to be honest with themselves first, as well as supervising coaches and parents, acknowledging the full extent that a symptomatic injury is paramount in preventing premature return to play and in keeping their health in mind. Athletes needs to be educated at an early age of the serious and long term consequences that come with brain impact injuries, and should be informed on what is known regarding minor traumatic brain injury in order to make decisions about what is right for themselves and their health within their sport,” comments Dr. Wieder. Wieder also believes more research needs to be carried out before we begin to limit these sports, as we can’t add significant rule changes or equipment without proving the benefits of specific changes.