Rob Gronkowski, who recently retired after nine seasons as a tight end for the New England Patriots, just made an interesting claim on Twitter about chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE):
Gronkowski, otherwise known as “Gronk” if you don’t want to say “owski,” was responding to the following tweet by Chris Nowinski, PhD:
As you can see, Gronk’s tweet was responding to what Nowinski had tweeted about what Gronk had said on a CBS Television interview. Nowinski then responded to Gronk’s tweet about Nowinski’s response to Gronk’s TV interview with the following tweet: “You are right about brain plasticity, and I am glad you are feeling great today, but neurodegenerative diseases (CTE, Alzheimer’s, etc.) cannot be “fixed” or cured today. They eventually win. Please come on over to the BU brain bank next week and we can discuss the nuances.”
Are you following all this?
Gronk is literally a super accomplished football player. He made the NFL Pro Bowl five times, was a First Team NFL All-Pro four times, was on a Super Bowl-winning team three times, and has taken his shirt off in public seemingly as many times as Matthew Mcconaughey has. Some consider Gronk to be the GOAT of tight ends, and he has also danced with a stuffed goat.
Nowinski is a co-founder and executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. He retired in 2003 from the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) professional wrestler after suffering extended post-concussion symptoms as a professional wrestler. Nowinski also co-founded of the Boston University CTE Center, serves on the NFL Players Association Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Research Committee, and earned a Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from the Boston University School of Medicine.
The decision here goes to Nowinski. Unless you are the X-Men character Wolverine and can self-heal, Gronk’s claim during the interview that “any injury that you receive is fixable,” does not hold. The human body is not a dining set from IKEA. You can’t just use some glue to piece things together or order a new part. Lots of former football players are walking around with injuries that were unfortunately not fixable.
CTE is one of them. There is currently no treatment for CTE. CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that is still poorly understood. Research has suggested that repeated trauma to the brain causes damage and the build-up of an abnormal protein called “tau”, which rhymes with “ow.” CTE can then lead to symptoms such as memory loss, difficulty thinking, confusion, loss of impulse control, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidal thinking, tremors, and progressive dementia. Such symptoms can begin and progress long after the head trauma. If Gronk has found the way to fix this tragically debilitating disease, he hasn’t yet shared the magic formula.
Gronk can’t even tell if he really has had CTE. Why? Because he appeared on the CBS television show and spoke. The only way to officially diagnose CTE is after a person’s death during an autopsy. A pathologist has to examine the person’s brain tissue and find tau protein and the damage that’s indicative of CTE. That’s why it is difficult to tell how many people are walking around with CTE. Unfortunately, the number of former NFL players diagnosed with CTE after their death continues to grow. The list includes Dwight Clark, Dave Duerson, Frank Gifford, John Mackey, Junior Seau, Bubba Smith, Ken Stabler, Andre Waters, and Mike Webster.
There is no type of brain imaging, test, questionnaire, seance, or app that can determine for sure if you have CTE. Although you may suspect CTE based on symptoms and a history of head trauma, other conditions can cause CTE-like symptoms. Suffering concussions and post-concussive symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have or will have CTE. On the flip side, a study published in the journal Brain suggests that CTE can develop even without having had any concussions. It seems like repeated blows to the head rather than concussions themselves are what leads to CTE.
However, just because CTE is not “fixable” doesn’t meant that you shouldn’t see a doctor if you suspect that you have CTE. There are various ways to help people and their families cope with and manage CTE symptoms. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy can help with mood changes, and memory training exercises can deal with memory problems.
Plus, something else besides CTE may be causing your symptoms, and that something else may just happen to be more “fixable.”