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The CTE Addiction Connection

Sports injuries, especially in athletes who compete at a high level, lead to drug addiction more often than most will admit.

Although there is no direct scientific link between CTE and addiction, the condition’s symptoms can make people more susceptible to abusing and eventually becoming addicted to narcotics.

What Is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease caused by repetitive brain injuries. CTE is a progressive disease, and in most cases, it is fatal. There is no cure for CTE, and the condition is usually only diagnosed post-mortem.

What Causes CTE?

Repeated head injuries or severe concussions cause CTE. Head trauma causes changes to your brain and a protein called tau to accumulate and form tangles.

CTE affects varying groups of people, including athletes who participate in contact sports, soldiers exposed to bomb blasts, and domestic violence victims, all of whom commonly suffer head traumas.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Symptoms

Due to the nature of the disease, the symptoms of CTE are primarily behavioral and prove very difficult to detect.

CTE symptoms include:

  • Mood swings
  • Impaired judgment
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Dementia
  • Headaches
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion

Athletes and CTE

Many athletes, especially those competing in contact sports like football and boxing, have CTE and don’t realize it. Taking repeated blows to the head can cause severe concussions and brain trauma, leading to the progression of the disease.

The longer athletes participate in these sports, the higher their chance of developing CTE, possibly leading to dementia.

What Is the Relationship Between CTE and Addiction?

Many athletes who abuse opioids have higher concentrations of tau protein in their brains. However, it is difficult to distinguish whether this is due to CTE causing athletes to use opioids to deal with pain or if opioid abuse itself causes CTE.

CTE affects athletes’ judgment, making them more susceptible to drug abuse, and causes several symptoms that can be relieved through regular painkiller use. Using analgesics for longer or in higher doses than prescribed can lead to tolerance, dependence, and eventually addiction.

The withdrawal symptoms of opioid abuse make it difficult to quit and include:

  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings
  • Body aches

Together with the symptoms of CTE, going through opioid withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable.

The combination of CTE and alcohol abuse is also common and can exacerbate the disease. It is estimated up to one-third of people suffering from traumatic brain injuries like CTE use alcohol either moderately or heavily.1 This may be due to the stress of competition for athletes or to deal with the mental health effects of CTE, as alcohol causes feelings of relaxation and wellbeing.

When To Seek Help

Getting help for drug and alcohol addiction, whether due to CTE or other causes, is vital, especially if you can no longer function normally without drugs or alcohol or if your use of these substances interferes with your daily life and relationships.

Professionally supervised treatment like medical detox, inpatient residential, or dual diagnosis programs can significantly benefit you if you suffer from addiction and suspect you may have CTE.

If you or your loved one suffers from addiction, contact our team today at (949) 427-9099 to get the help and assistance you need.


  1. https://misuse.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/error/abuse.shtml

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