Both medical researchers and the general public have long known that repeated head trauma can cause serious damage. Research has helped us begin to understand one of these long-term effects: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

If you’re struggling with this condition or think you might be, the road to a better life starts with understanding. Here’s what you need to know about CTE.

Who Suffers From CTE?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease that sometimes develops in people with a history of repeated head trauma. Certain populations are at higher risk than others. 

These individuals include:

  • Athletes who play football and other contact sports
  • Military veterans
  • Boxers, martial artists, and other combat sports participants
  • Victims of sustained interpersonal violence 
  • People with disorders that cause them to repeatedly bang their heads against walls

While CTE can be found in all of the populations listed above, it’s most frequently seen in military veterans and those who play contact sports.

Experts think CTE starts when repeated traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) cause a brain protein called tau to begin folding the wrong way. When this happens, it starts to cause serious problems that lead to brain cell death.

Once tau starts to misfold in one part of the brain, those misfolding proteins spread, killing more brain cells. That process leads to brain degeneration and ultimately to premature death.

One of the barriers to understanding CTE is that the condition can currently only be diagnosed by dissecting the brain after death. 

The UNITE Brain Bank and similar organizations have helped further CTE and traumatic brain injury research, allowing athletes and other people with suspected brain injuries to donate their brains after they die. One of the Brain Bank’s main focuses is developing a test for CTE that can be performed while the subject is still alive.

It’s important to understand that it takes repeated, significant head injuries to cause CTE — it can’t happen because of one or two minor concussions. In most cases, people develop CTE from being hit in the head hundreds or thousands of times. That said, getting a traumatic brain injury while recovering from a previous one can greatly increase your risk of getting CTE.

A Brief History of CTE Research

Even though CTE isn’t yet very well understood, scientists have known about it for almost a century. In 1928, one doctor recorded what he called “punch drunk syndrome” in boxers. This condition wasn’t referred to as “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” until 1957.

CTE didn’t start making headlines until the 2000s, when Dr. Bennet Omalu published a paper called “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” The study was based on the brain of Mike Weber, a deceased NFL player. 

Omalu’s study raised awareness of CTE, and soon after, NFL players began pledging their brains to brain banks. The NFL itself donated money to support further research into CTE.

CTE Symptoms in Depth

CTE can’t be diagnosed until after death, but if someone shows enough symptoms, they might receive a presumptive diagnosis. Even presumptive diagnoses can be difficult to make, as symptoms often don’t show up until later in life, and they often can have other, completely unrelated causes.

Mood Symptoms

Usually, the first symptoms of CTE to manifest are changes in mood or behavior, such as:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety and/or paranoia
  • Depression
  • Aggression
  • Problems with impulse control

These symptoms can show up as early as the afflicted individual’s 20s. In many cases, the symptoms are the only indicator of CTE until other symptoms start to develop in their 60s and 70s.

Cognitive Symptoms

A person’s mood and behavior can shift in the early stages of CTE, but it typically isn’t until later that they start to experience cognitive issues affecting thinking and memory. These issues tend to get worse over time. 

They may include the following:

  • Problems with judgment
  • Issues with executive function (ability to plan, focus, multitask, etc.)
  • Impaired short-term memory
  • Symptoms of dementia

Like mood symptoms, cognitive symptoms can have other causes. If these symptoms show up in someone’s 60s or later, they’re more likely to be caused by CTE. If they show up earlier than that, they’re more likely to have a different cause.

Regardless of the cause, these symptoms can (and should) be treated and managed. A visit to your doctor is a good place to start. They can refer you to a specialist if needed.

It wasn’t until recently that researchers found a possible link between sleep problems and CTE. In 2020, the UNITE Brain Bank found that people with CTE might be more likely to suffer from REM sleep behavior disorder.

With this disorder, people act out vivid dreams or nightmares even though they’re still asleep. They might kick, thrash, yell, and even jump out of bed. Like CTE itself, REM sleep behavior disorder usually gets worse with time.

Can CTE Be Treated?

The fact that CTE can only be officially diagnosed after death makes it difficult — though not impossible — to manage. There’s currently no treatment or cure for CTE. 

However, there are medical and lifestyle steps you can take to manage symptoms and improve your quality of life:

  • Sticking to a regular sleep schedule
  • Regularly exercising (but not playing contact or combat sports)
  • Taking certain medications to improve cognitive symptoms
  • Seeking professional help to develop emotional regulation and self-regulation skills
  • Keeping an eye out for impulsive behaviors (gambling, overspending, drinking too much or using drugs, etc.) and seeking professional help to manage them if needed

Bear in mind that some medical professionals have more experience helping people manage CTE than others. Your general practitioner may be able to give you a referral to see a specialist.

Dealing With Symptoms of CTE

If you or a loved one struggles with symptoms of CTE, you likely already know how hopeless it can feel. But when you consult a specialist, it’s possible to manage your symptoms and live a comfortable life.

Contact Our Medical Malpractice Law Firm For Help Today

If you or a close one have suffered from medical malpractice in Atlanta, GA, please call Malone Law Medical Malpractice and Severe Injury Lawyers at (770) 390-7550 or contact us online to schedule a free case evaluation today.

Malone Law Medical Malpractice and Severe Injury Lawyers

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Suite 300
Atlanta, GA 30346