Traumatic brain injury (TBI), characterized by acute neurological dysfunction, is one of the best known environmental risk factors for chronic traumatic encephalopathy and Alzheimer's disease, the defining pathologic features of which include tauopathy made of phosphorylated tau protein (P-tau). However, tauopathy has not been detected in the early stages after TBI, and how TBI leads to tauopathy is unknown. Here we find robust cis P-tau pathology after TBI in humans and mice. After TBI in mice and stress in vitro, neurons acutely produce cis P-tau, which disrupts axonal microtubule networks and mitochondrial transport, spreads to other neurons, and leads to apoptosis. This process, which we term 'cistauosis', appears long before other tauopathy. Treating TBI mice with cis antibody blocks cistauosis, prevents tauopathy development and spread, and restores many TBI-related structural and functional sequelae. Thus, cis P-tau is a major early driver of disease after TBI and leads to tauopathy in chronic traumatic encephalopathy and Alzheimer's disease. The cis antibody may be further developed to detect and treat TBI, and prevent progressive neurodegeneration after injury.