Concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE, has been a major hot button topic in professional sports and pop culture over the past few years. With today’s medical breakthroughs and technological advancement, doctors, scientists, and researchers are learning more and more about how injuries to the head affect athletes, their careers, and life after sports. In order to dig deeper into the topic, we must first understand what a concussion is and what chronic traumatic encephalopathy is.
So, what is a concussion?
As someone who played basketball and hockey competitively, and whose father played over 20 years of professional hockey, concussions have been a major part of my life. I no longer play sports competitively, but play recreationally and they remain a big part of my life to this day. During the first week of the Fall 2015 semester, I went to the Intramural Building to play basketball with my friends. During our first game, I was playing defense and took an elbow to the face that left me disoriented and bleeding on the hardwood. After being taken to the Mount Nittany Emergency Room and after a CT scan of my head was performed, I was diagnosed with two broken bones in my nose and a concussion. My doctor gave me a very basic definition of what a concussion was. According to him, a concussion was any type of injury or blow to the head where the symptoms of the injury lasted for more than 30 minutes. After doing some research of my own, he was mostly right. According to the Mayo Clinic, a concussion is any type of traumatic injury or blow to the head that affects and changes the way your brain normally functions.
What is chronic traumatic encephalopathy?
Unlike cancer, which according to the National Institutes of Health, was first discovered some 2400 years ago, CTE was only discovered 14 years ago in 2002 by Dr. Bennet Omalu making it a relatively new condition. CTE is a disease that affects the brain by nerve cells that gradually deteriorate, which ultimately leads to cell death. CTE is caused by repeated injuries to the head and concussions. As of now, CTE currently does not have a cure.
How and why does this affect professional athletes?
Naturally, athletes who play contact sports are more at risk of getting concussions and CTE because of the repeated blows to the head. Offensive linemen and defensive lineman who play in the NFL suffer a blow to the head with every play by simply ramming into each other with immense speed. When my father played in the NHL during the 1990s and 2000s, CTE was something nobody has heard of before because it did not exist. No one knew the profound risks that were associated with head injuries and concussions. There was no protocol for concussions like there is today. If you took a hit along the boards and skated to the bench complaining that your head hurt, the coaching staff would tell you to suck it up and get back in the game. Since those days, our knowledge of how concussions affect athlete’s lives has grown exponentially. In the NFL, Concussion protocols have been put into place, where players have to come out of the game if trainers and doctors believe that they have suffered a concussion and are only allowed back into play if they pass a concussion “test”. Recently, the NFL also announced that they were giving $100 million dollars in funding to promote player safety, further investigate concussions, and to fund medical and technological advancements that could possible make CTE extinct.
Why do I care so much about CTE?
After my father stepped away from professional hockey in 2009, he has faced a string of health problems that correlate with the symptoms of CTE. In recent years, headaches, memory loss, and depression have surfaced. He’s been diagnosed with at least 8 concussions during a 22 year playing career and he suspects that he has probably had at least 5 more that were undiagnosed. Additionally, Bob Probert, a teammate and friend of my father’s passed away in 2010. Following his death, Bob’s family decided to give his brain to researchers at Boston University. About one year later, the results showed that Bob had CTE. Although he is only the second hockey player to be diagnosed with CTE, I guarantee that he is not the last.
What can we do about CTE?
Unfortunately, CTE is different from all of the things we talked about in class. Albeit a strong correlation between CTE and brain damage, there is no way to manipulate the X variable (CTE). Going back to a question on test one, sometimes experiments are not possible given infinite time and money. We cannot give people CTE by repeatedly punching them in the face and giving them concussions (that is highly unethical). There is also no known cure to CTE at this time. So, unlike the worm example where researchers gave children with worms drugs, we cannot give people a cure to CTE and see if brain functionality improves because there is no cure. Additionally, CTE is not something that develops overnight. There is usually about a 6-10 year period between the repeated blows to the head and concussions and the onset of CTE symptoms. (That is also something that we discussed in class when smoking cigarettes and lung cancer was being compared.) Another major obstacle to the cure of CTE is that there is no way to tell if a living person has the disease. CTE can only be diagnosed if a former player donates his or her brain and an autopsy is performed and it reveals evidence of CTE. However, there are some things we can do. We need to keep this discussion going. The major sports leagues around the world should devote resources to further study CTE. We should tell people who play contact sports the risks associated with their decision. That includes parents whose children are interested in contact sports. In the past ten years there have been numerous innovations and improvements in regards to CTE, but we cannot stop here, we must continue to build on the improvements that were made. The ball needs to be pushed further. Hopefully, one day, a cure to CTE will be developed and this terrible disease will be a thing of the past.