Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: Not Just for Pro Athletes

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: Not Just for Pro AthletesChronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is brain degeneration believed to be caused by repeated trauma to the head. Although CTE remains mostly a mystery to doctors and researchers, we do know it can only be diagnosed post-mortem and tends to appear in athletes who played contact sports, or military personnel exposed to loud explosives.

However, you don’t have to be a professional athlete or military veteran to suffer a permanent brain injury. NPR recently spoke with some everyday Americans who suspect they may have developed CTE, and the risks they’re willing to take to treat a condition that they can’t diagnose.

First, however, a little more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

What is CTE?

CTE is a rare disorder of the brain that causes degeneration, diagnosed only at autopsy. According to the Mayo Clinic, “CTE is not related to the immediate consequences of a late-life episode of head trauma. CTE has a complex relationship with head traumas such as persistent post-concussive symptoms and second impact syndrome that occur earlier in life.”

Experts are still trying to determine exactly how head traumas contribute to CTE, and how to diagnose it in high-risk individuals. Currently there is no cure for CTE, and no specific symptoms are associated with it. However, the Mayo Clinic reports that in instances where individuals were diagnosed with CTE, they displayed cognitive, behavioral, and motor changes, including:

  • Difficulty thinking
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with executive functioning
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Aggression
  • Depression
  • Emotional instability
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Parkinsonism
  • Dementia
  • Motor neuron disease

Scientists also believe CTE needs years or decades to develop, and isn’t the immediate result of an injury. They also note that not every athlete or every person who experiences multiple concussions will develop CTE, but it can raise the risk.

“I 100% think that I have CTE to some level”

Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR recently interviewed some people she discovered while researching a story on CTE and the NFL. Although none of them ever played a professional sport, they have one thing in common – they are all afraid they suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The problem with that, explains Pfeiffer, is:

CTE can only be diagnosed through an autopsy. So while all these people may believe they have CTE, they can’t find out for sure. Even if they could, there’s no treatment. That’s left many of the people I’ve interviewed feeling desperate. And that desperation has created ideal conditions for a flourishing industry of unproven, unregulated health care products because when you’re that afraid, you’re willing to try almost anything.

Most of the people Pfeiffer spoke with were amateur athletes back in college, or suffered head injuries in car crashes or accidents from skiing and skateboarding. One person interviewed, Leo Perez, told Pfeiffer, “I 100% think I have CTE to some level.” Another person said he thinks he has symptoms of mental illness caused by CTE.

Yet another, Lee Brush, age 47, told Pfeiffer how he started developing symptoms in his 30s, including severe headaches, ringing in his ears, memory loss, impulsive behavior, cognitive impairment, and – frighteningly – an incident while driving that he described as “complete uncontrollable rage.”

Brush cannot get a diagnosis and must manage his concerns on his own. He tells Pfeiffer he’s “in a relatively good place now, thanks to an antidepressant and therapy sessions with his pastor.”

However, others are turning to more desperate, and potentially unscrupulous, measures to deal with their CTE fears. Tommy Edwards of Virginia also spoke to Pfeiffer about his CTE symptoms and his efforts to alleviate them. He points to retired NFL star Joe Namath’s use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, that Namath claims has reversed his brain injuries caused by years of concussions.

Edwards is building a homemade hyperbaric chamber, with a propane tank from a scrapyard. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is part of a growing industry claiming to ease the symptoms of CTE. From oxygen therapy to IV infusions to supplements and powders, brain injury patients have a variety of treatments from which to choose – the problem is that none of them are FDA-approved or even proven to work.

In fact, says, Pfeiffer, “The FDA has not approved any treatment for CTE, let alone hyperbaric oxygen therapy. And it has risks, from ruptured eardrums to lung collapse. But Edwards says it’s worth trying because no doctor has been able to make him feel better. And do-it-yourself instructions are all over YouTube.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine also reports that oxygen dosage during hyperbaric oxygen therapy is crucial, or overdose and poisoning can occur. Oxygen poisoning can cause lung failure, fluid in the lungs, and seizures. Too much oxygen can also cause vision problems and sinus damage.

If you or a loved one suffer a brain injury, it’s crucial to seek professional medical advice and follow that advice to the letter. If your injuries occurred as the result of another’s negligence, an experienced attorney can help secure compensation for your medical bills and other damages.

At Merkel & Cocke, P.A., we understand the catastrophic nature of a traumatic brain injury and how it can affect every aspect of your or your loved one’s life. Let our attorneys work to hold the right people accountable for what happened. Contact us today for a consultation about your potential case. We help clients in Jackson, Clarksdale, Greenville, and Oxford. We also serve clients throughout the Gulf Coast. Call us at 662-627-9641, or complete our contact form online.