As media attention on brain injuries and concussions in sports has skyrocketed, athletes and parents are increasingly asking questions. One of the real concerns centers around the degenerative brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Overview of CTE

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive neurologic disorder. Neurologists and other experts generally believe that it results from repetitive impacts to the head – mild traumatic brain injuries. Football is the sports most often associated with CTE. A similar neurologic deterioration had been described in boxers in the 1920s. CTE has also been reported in wrestling, soccer, and hockey as well as in former members of the military.

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Concussion from heading the soccer ball

CTE and a history of concussions

Repetitive subconcussive blows over time, such as a football lineman colliding with a defender over and over, game after game, appear to be the real culprit associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. An athlete’s history of multiple concussions could be associated with it, although it is hard to prove a conclusive link. Many athletes suffer concussions and even recurrent concussions, but not all of them go on to develop CTE.


Chronic traumatic encephalopathy can manifest in different ways related to cognitive and neurologic deterioration. Since doctors cannot currently diagnose this condition in living patients, proving that the following symptoms represent the condition can be challenging. A former athlete might demonstrate memory loss or difficulty with attention. He might display behavioral changes such as impulsiveness, irritability, depression,
apathy, lack of inhibition, anger, violence, or alcohol and drug abuse.

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Making the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy

Pathologists can only diagnose CTE by autopsy and examination of the brain after a patient’s death. Currently there is no physical exam finding, neurologic test, CT scan, or MRI can conclusively make the diagnosis.

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Doctor looking at brain MRI for CTE

Possible prevention

Without being able to definitively determine cause and effect, it is hard to state what measures would completely prevent an athlete from developing this brain degeneration. Reducing the repetitive subconcussive blows are believed to be key in decreasing an athlete’s risk. Research into newer helmet technology has been ongoing. Since no helmet can absolutely prevent a concussion or subconcussive blows to the brain, it is hard to say that any helmet can currently prevent CTE.

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Common questions about CTE and traumatic brain injuries in sports

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