CTE and Football: An Upper Cervical Chiropractic Perspective

CTE and the NFL: A Structural Perspective

cTEIf you’re a sports fan like myself, then you’re probably aware of the NFL’s crackdown on violent blows above the shoulders. The reason for this crackdown is because of the emergence of a new diagnosis that is wreaking havoc on retired NFL players. This disease has even driven some of these former NFL alumni like Junior Seau, to take their own life. The name of this disease is chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In recent weeks, former Dolphins wide receiver Mark “Super” Duper has been diagnosed with the disease and is starting to speak out to create awareness.

What is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, is a disease caused by repetitive head trauma. Former boxers, hockey players, and football players have experienced the signs, symptoms, and diagnosis of CTE many magnitudes higher than the normal population, even if no history of concussion has ever been documented.

It’s characterized by dramatic mood swings, memory loss, increasing addictive behavior, and severe headaches. As the disease progresses into later ages, an early onset of dementia is often seen and expected. It has even been identified in a 28 year-old hockey player who showed a startling amount of brain damage at such an early age.

Because of the increasing number of diagnoses by former NFL players, the NFL has been under intense scrutiny and potential lawsuits to try and solve this problem. Only within the last 10 years have people been able to find markers of CTE that might be in a living person. Prior to detection of certain antibodies and proteins, CTE was diagnosed after death when brains were examined.

Junior Seau, the most famous well known victim of CTE

What they found is that the brain matter had shrunk substantially compared to normal people. Specifically, areas that are responsible for mood and memory. The damaged brain cells leave markers called Tau-proteins which are a similar sign that brains of Alzheimer’s patients leave as well. The most remarkable point however, is that people don’t usually find this kind of brain atrophy until someone is in their 70’s and 80’s, but it’s being increasingly found in people in their 30’s and 40’s.

The result has been a movement to improve the head gear of NFL players, penalize helmet to helmet contact and launching tackles, but little has offered to help people who already suffer with the disease in retirement.

A Structural Chiropractic Perspective

In recent years, there has been a movement in a small part of chiropractic to study the implications that Atlas alignment has on  the brain. As a result, some promising discoveries have been made which may hold a key to unlocking the devastating effects of CTE.

First, Dr. Michael Flanagan began studying the structural uniqueness of the upper cervical spine and it’s potential effects on the flow of a substance called cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). He found that the upper neck was uniquely situated to shift out of place and block the flow of CSF out of the brain. The result is that this backed up CSF will increase the pressure built up in the brain and cause brain tissue to degenerate.

To test his theories, Dr. Scott Rosa and Dr. Gordon Hasick have been using advanced MRI techniques to study the flow of CSF before and after getting precision Atlas Corrections. Though the studies have been small, they are starting to see definitive changes in the way CSF flow changes the physiology of the brain.

Measurements of CSF flow before and after atlas correction

Measurements of CSF flow before and after atlas correction

What does this mean in laymen’s terms?

Repeated small head impacts leads to Atlas problems –> Atlas problems block CSF –>Blocked CSF could mean damaged brains.

The truth is that we don’t know enough about CTE to know if anything can help the pathology behind the illness. We are not even at the point where we know definitively if someone has CTE until they have died. We do however know when someone has taken brain injury.

But does that mean Atlas corrections could reverse the symptoms of brain injury? Small cases are saying yes. Read this story about former BYU Superstar Jim McMahon. 

Dr. Rosa reached out to him to do a pre and post atlas correction assessment on him. While he’s not perfect, when his atlas position is maintained, he begins to feel human again. I say maintained, because the job of a specific chiropractor isn’t to adjust you repeatedly over and over to feel well. It is to provide a precise correction and teach the body to hold it for as long as possible. That is a huge Structural Chiropractic difference.


I say maintained, because the job of a specific chiropractor isn’t to adjust you repeatedly over and over to feel well. It is to provide a precise correction and teach the body to hold it for as long as possible.


I remember taking care of a really young patient with all of the signs and symptoms of brain injury. He’s a young, strong guy that looked like he could’ve played college football.  He was less than 20 years old at the time, but was depressed and didn’t know why. Though he hadn’t had a concussion in several years, the repeated blows to the head from playing football had taken it’s toll. Within a few corrections, not only did his hip pain start to dissipate, but you could actually see a huge change in his mood and outlook.

CTE is nothing to take lightly. Not only is it damaging physically, but it’s emotionally draining for the person with the disease AND the people they love. If you are concerned about a love one who has taken one too many blows to the head and you suspect they have some type of brain related illness, it may help to make sure that the neck is working optimally.

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