Sports Concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

April 1, 2019

Up to 3.8 million concussions occur each year in the US, many of them sustained by athletes during practice or play, said Dr. Catherine Ikard, an assistant professor of neurology for the College of Community Health Sciences and a neurologist at University Medical Center, which the College operates.

Concussions are caused by acceleration and deceleration forces – the brain moving forward and then stopping quickly, Ikard said during a presentation as part of Mini Medical School, a lecture series the College hosts with The University of Alabama OLLI Program.

“People can get a concussion without getting a hit to the head,” she said. “Blows to the body can cause a concussion.”

Symptoms of concussions include headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, memory impairment and confusion. Concussions can also cause irritability, depression and anxiety.

Ikard said people who sustain concussions don’t always need a CT scan. “This is important because a CT scan is radiation, and that is a risk. Data tells us that if you have a good neurological exam by a physician, you don’t need a CT.”

The protocol for managing concussions includes rest, observation and avoiding cognitive tasks that could exacerbate symptoms.

Ikard explained that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head. Potential signs of CTE are problems with thinking and memory, personality changes and delusion, impacted motor function, and behavioral changes including aggression and depression.

CTE is often reported in military personnel and professional athletes, Ikard said. For soldiers, being near an explosion of one improvised explosive device (IED) can cause CTE; in athletes it’s typically caused by repetitive hits.

Ikard said CTE mimics Alzheimer’s disease and has similar accumulation of tau in the brain. Tau is a protein that, when it accumulates, disrupts the functioning of brain cells.