Contact sports, CTE and your relationship

Have you or your partner changed for the worse?

Have you or they acquired some worrying symptoms, including irritability and aggression?

Are you familiar with a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE (the result of frequent head injuries)?

I’m so pleased you’ve landed on this page because in this article I’m hoping to give you some insight into CTE. It’s important you’re familiar with the signs and symptoms of CTE just in case it could account for that change in behaviour.

In particular, I’m going to focus on what CTE could mean for you and your relationship.

Why?

Because that aggression, irritability and depression could potentially be the result of repetitive brain injuries. And, in that case, you’d need specialist advice – you need a therapist who’s familiar with the condition.

Vector image: line drawing - profile showing brain. Text: Could your partner's behaviour be due to a brain injury after playing contact sports?
Your partner could have suffered multiple brain injuries over many years of playing a contact sport

Who’s at risk of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

CTE used to be called “punch-drunk” as it was recognised only in boxers.

However, recent research has shown that boxers aren’t the only people at risk of developing the disease.

The New York Times published an article which reported the findings of a study: of the 111 brains of deceased NFL players, 110 had the disease. In his TEDtalk, Chris Nowinski reveals that in the 500 brains they have studied, 300 had CTE! 

Unfortunately, it’s not only American football players who are at risk of getting CTE. Frequent head injuries also occur in other contact sports, e.g. soccer, wrestling, ice hockey, field hockey, rugby, basketball, etc.

Military personnel can also develop CTE on account of repeated blasts. And victims of domestic violence can be subjected to repeated blows to the head which also results in lasting brain damage.

Photo: Two women playing soccer, heading the ball. Text: Head Injury symptoms
Soccer too is a contact sport

The signs and symptoms of CTE and your relationship

Why should it matter to you whether or not you or your partner/spouse has CTE?

You’ll understand when you see this list of symptoms of CTE.

How to know if you or your partner has CTE

These symptoms may not become apparent until years or even decades down the line and many look like the symptoms of addiction.

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Connect with a licensed therapist to get some reassurance, support and professional advice

The first warning signs of a change in mood, behaviour and personality may appear in your late 20s or 30s. Cognitive symptoms appear later, possibly in your 40s and 50s [3].

You or your partner may well become aware of the symptoms before anybody else does. And, doubtless, you can see that those symptoms are difficult to rhyme with building and maintaining a healthy relationship (though by no means impossible).

If you or your partner is still heavily involved in the sport, it may well be very difficult to admit that anything’s wrong. The subject is likely to stay off the table for too long.

The denial may be down to pride, not wanting to let their teammates down, and/or – particularly in case of elite sports – possibly money. It’s difficult to talk about it or report any problems [2}.

However, with regards to your relationship – as a partner, you will at some point come to realise that you no longer recognise the person you love(d) and perhaps married. And, if you’re the one potentially suffering from CTE, you’ll probably know that your relationship has suffered on account of your symptoms.

Many of us struggle with seeing our behaviour the same way our partners do even without a brain injury! So imagine how much more difficult it is if the very areas of the brain that govern your ability to appreciate how you are behaving has been affected.”

Steve Shears

See Steve’s guest article: Brain injury symptoms and your relationship.

American football player holding a football
Is your partner or spouse changing for the worse?

What can you do?

6 Tips to help you, your partner and your relationship

If you already recognise the above mentioned CTE symptoms, then here’s what you can do:

1. Familiarise yourself with the condition
Read Chris Nowinski’s book: Head Games, Football’s Concussion Crisis. And talk about it together if at all possible. If not, leave the book lying around for your partner to pick up when they’re ready for it.

Book cover: Head Games. Football's Concussion Crisis. By Chris Nowinski

2. Make notes
Record what you see, hear and feel in a journal. It’ll help you keep track of the symptoms and any changes. This will help you both when you or your partner is ready to report the problem and/or see a doctor.

3. Accept the need for a medical checkup
You or your partner may not have CTE. There are other conditions that could account for some of the symptoms. Either way, the symptoms could be alleviated with appropriate strategies and/or medication.

Accompany your partner if they value your support.

4. Deal with any other relationship problems
Just like any other couple, the two of you will have your own relationship issues, whether or not they’re related to CTE.

It’s important that you address these as soon as possible. Get some good relationship advice (bearing in mind that your counsellor will need to be familiar with the condition).

5. Make a judgement on the aggression
Learn to distinguish between the following behaviours:

  • lack of impulse control and aggression
  • calculated, manipulative, controlling and abusive behaviour.

See also: Brain injury symptoms and your relationship.

I’d like you to read my article on the signs of an abusive relationship too.

It’s important to understand how the aggression associated with CTE is different from the calculated, abusive behaviour of a controlling, manipulative partner or spouse. Of course, there can be an overlap.

In the case of the former, this article from the Alzheimer’s Association is a great resource to help you handle anger and aggression.

In the case of the latter, you need the help of one of the organisations listed below my article on the signs of an abusive relationship.

Regardless of the cause of your or your partner’s aggressive outbursts, know that each of you has the right to be safe in your relationship. And, if you have children, you need to be aware of the consequences of their witnessing emotional abuse and acts of violence in the home.

6. Look after yourself
If you’re the partner or spouse of someone suffering from CTE, you’ll need to take particular care of yourself. That includes making sure you get support and perhaps some counselling for yourself.

Invest in interests and hobbies. Develop your relationships with your extended family and friends. Both strategies will ensure as wide a social circle and support network as possible to help keep you sane in times of trouble.

You have a right to be safe in your relationship, regardless of the causes of aggressive behaviour.

Finally

If you suspect that you or your partner has CTE, the two of you are going to be facing challenging times ahead. CTE, very sadly, is not a condition that can be fixed. Remember though, as with all relationship problems, communication is key. 

If your partner’s reluctant to talk, don’t keep on at them. But, do let them know how you’re feeling and in particular your concerns about the future of your relationship. If your relationship is worth saving, your partner will hopefully hear your request for your worries to be addressed.

In the meantime, there’s much you can do to improve your relationship. See the following articles:

Background photo: silhouette of woman's face. Text: Need advice? Get help. Chat with a licensed therapist now.
Your problem is never too big, too small or too embarrassing to get personal advice from a professional counsellor!

Sources

1. “Concussion Legacy Foundation.” Concussion Legacy Foundation, concussionfoundation.org/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2019.

2. BrainFacts.org. “Life After Football: The Effects of Repeated Concussions.” YouTube, BrainFacts.org, 30 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fH1Y4VB2Ntk.

3. “What Is CTE?” Concussion Legacy Foundation, 6 Nov. 2018, concussionfoundation.org/CTE-resources/what-is-CTE. Accessed 20 Feb. 2019.

Other interesting links

Headway fact sheet: How the brain works

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