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Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a type of dementia. Read about the symptoms, causes and diagnosis of CTE.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a type of dementia. You can get it from repeated blows to the head and repeated concussion.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is associated with contact sports. For example, boxing, rugby and American football.

Symptoms of CTE

The symptoms may be like other types of dementia, particularly Alzheimer's disease.

Related topic

Alzheimer's disease

Short-term memory loss

Examples of short-term memory loss are:

  • asking the same question several times
  • having difficulty remembering names
  • having difficulty remembering phone numbers

Changes in mood

Such as:

  • frequent mood swings
  • depression
  • feeling increasingly anxious, frustrated or agitated

Increasing confusion and disorientation

For example:

  • getting lost
  • wandering
  • not knowing what time of day it is

Difficulty thinking

For example, finding it hard to make decisions.

As the condition progresses, further symptoms may include:

  • slurred speech (dysarthria)
  • significant problems with memory
  • parkinsonism – tremor, slow movement and muscle stiffness
  • difficulty eating or swallowing (dysphagia) – although this is rare

Causes of CTE

Things that increase the risk of CTE include:

  • receiving repeated blows to the head
  • repeated concussion

CTE and concussion are separate conditions. Many people who are concussed don't go on to develop the condition. But, repeated minor head injuries increase the risk.

People at risk of CTE

Athletes

Athletes with a history of repetitive mild traumatic brain injury from certain sports.

These include:

  • contact sports, such as boxing or martial arts
  • American football
  • football - related to repeatedly heading the ball
  • rugby

Military veterans

Military veterans with a history of repeated head trauma, such as blast injuries.

People with a history of repeated head injuries

These include:

  • self-injury
  • victims of recurrent assault
  • poorly controlled epilepsy that results in repeated head trauma

When to seek medical advice

If you're worried about your memory or think you may have dementia, talk to your GP.

If you're worried about someone else, encourage them to make an appointment. You could suggest that you go along with them.

Dementia isn't the only cause of memory problems. They can also be caused by:

  • depression
  • stress
  • medications
  • other health problems

Your GP can carry out some simple checks to try to find out what the cause may be. They can refer you to a specialist memory clinic for more tests, if necessary.

Read about when to seek medical advice for:

Diagnosing CTE

A diagnosis is usually based on a history of:

  • participating in contact sports
  • symptoms
  • clinical features

Your GP will talk to you about the problems you're experiencing. They may ask you to perform some mental or physical tasks. For example, moving or walking around. You may be referred to a specialist memory assessment service.

Tests used for investigating neurodegenerative disorders are:

  • magnetic resonance image (MRI) scan
  • computerised tomography (CT) scan

Treating CTE

Treatment is based around supportive treatments.

Healthcare professionals will usually be involved in your long-term care plan. For example, your GP or specialist and social care services.

You may also need to see a speech and language therapist or an occupational therapist.

Contact an Alzheimer's or dementia support group for more information and advice.

Understand together

Alzheimer Society of Ireland

Preventing CTE

The only known way to prevent CTE is to avoid repetitive head injuries. Although many head injuries are difficult to predict or avoid, there are ways to reduce your risk.

For example:

  • wearing the recommended protective equipment during contact sports
  • following your doctor's recommendations about returning to play after a concussion
  • making sure contact sports you or your child are taking part in are supervised by a qualified person
  • seeking medical advice if any symptoms of a previous head injury return

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.

Page last reviewed: 21/03/2019
Next review due: 21/03/2022

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