What is CTE? What to know after former NHLer Chris Simon dies — plus other health-related questions Canadians asked this week

Wondering about CTE, Havana syndrome and enlarged spleen causes? Here's what you should know.

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Chris Simon died at age 52, and his family says they
Chris Simon died at age 52, and his family says they "strongly" believe CTE was a leading factor in the former NHL star's death. (AP Photo/Ed Betz, File)

For many Canadians, what's happening in hockey is typically top of mind. Between the latest highlights from the ice to major headlines featuring top NHL stars, people across the country are almost bound to be searching for answers when it comes to the sport.

This week, some of the most-searched health-related questions had to do with hockey players, after it was announced former NHL enforcer Chris Simon died — and a Winnipeg Jets player was indefinitely put on the sidelines.

So, what health-related questions were Canadians searching for this week, and why? Read on to learn more.

What is CTE?

On Tuesday, it was confirmed that one of hockey's most well-known enforcers, Chris Simon, had died at age 52. According to his family, the Wawa, Ont.-native — who played for teams like the Calgary Flames, Washington Capitals and New York Rangers — died by suicide Monday night.

His loved ones "strongly" believe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) played a significant factor in his death, according to a statement shared by Simon's former agent, Paul Theofanous.

"The family strongly believes and witnessed firsthand, that Chris struggled immensely from CTE which unfortunately resulted in his death," the statement read. "We are grieving with the loss of our son, brother, father, partner, teammate and friend."

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that can develop in people who have a history of multiple head injuries, according to Brain Injury Canada, such as athletes and veterans. Caused by concussions and nonconcussive impacts, CTE begins after a structural protein in neurons called tau misfolds and malfunctions. This causes adjacent proteins to misfold, leaving the abnormal tau to spread throughout the brain and kills cells, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

The brain disorder is associated with a variety of changes, including those related to memory, as well as personality changes including aggression and impulsivity. Eventually, advanced cases of CTE can lead to dementia.

CTE symptoms will typically only arise several years after a person suffers head injuries. Moreover, there are currently no tests to confirm if somebody is living with CTE — it can only be confirmed in brain tissue when someone dies.

What is Havana syndrome?

A five-year study released Monday further mystifies the symptoms experienced by Havana syndrome patients. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan, File)
A five-year study released Monday further mystifies the symptoms experienced by Havana syndrome patients. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan, File)

Outside of the hockey world, Havana syndrome has been making headlines, and there has been a more than 1,900 per cent increase in Google search queries for the ailment across Canada this week.

A five-year National Institutes of Health study released on Monday found there were no brain injuries or degeneration amongst U.S. officials suffering mysterious health symptoms that were first reported in Cuba in 2016. Those include headaches, a balance problem called persistent postural-perceptual dizziness and difficulties with thinking and sleep. In recent years, these symptoms were reported by as many as 1,500 U.S. government employees across 96 countries, along with some Canadian diplomats who sued Ottawa in 2019.

According to the study, sophisticated MRI scans detected no significant differences in brain volume, structure or white matter in patients when compared to healthy government workers with similar jobs.

Moreover, U.S. intel officials claim it's "very unlikely" a foreign adversary caused Havana syndrome amongst the American diplomats and spies, disputing initial claims it was evidence of hostile actions from a sonic or microwave weapon.

What causes an enlarged spleen?

Canadians were also curious about what causes an enlarged spleen, likely stemming from headlines earlier this week that reported Winnipeg Jets forward Gabriel Vilardi will be sidelined indefinitely due to the diagnosis.

While the Kingston, Ont.-born NHLer missed at least 30 games this season following a variety of injuries, Sportsnet reported Thursday the Winnipeg Jets are operating under the assumption Vilardi will return this season.

"After further testing, he has an enlarged spleen, so at this point there is no timetable [for a return]. ... He will not be traveling with the team," Winnipeg Jets coach Rick Bowness said, according to the NHL. "[The doctors are] treating it as best as they can. ... He's in good hands here."

Winnipeg Jets player Gabriel Vilardi will be out indefinitely due to an enlarged spleen. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
Winnipeg Jets player Gabriel Vilardi will be out indefinitely due to an enlarged spleen. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

An enlarged spleen, also known as a splenomegaly, usually doesn't cause symptoms. But sometimes, patients may experience some of the following symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic:

  • Pain or fullness in the left upper belly that can spread to the left shoulder

  • A feeling of fullness despite not eating or only after eating a small amount

  • Low red blood cells, or anemia

  • Frequent infections

  • Bleeding or bruising easily

While a healthy spleen is typically up to 12 centimetres long and 70 grams in weight, an enlarged spleen can be up to 20 centimetres long and weigh more than 1,000 grams. There can be several causes of an enlarged spleen, including inflammation, fat storage, pooled blood, benign or malignant growths, overproduction of cells, liver disease and some cancers.

Treatment for an enlarged spleen typically focuses on what's causing it. In many cases, an enlarged spleen will return to its normal size over time, whereas some conditions may go away by themselves. In other cases, patients might have to undergo surgery to remove their spleen, a procedure called a splenectomy. While you can live well without your spleen, you will likely be more susceptible to infections.

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