Concussions - You Only Have One Brain. You Want To Protect It.
Jeanie McCormack, DO
Your head is structured with protection in mind. In much the same way that your car is specially reinforced to defend occupants against impacts, your skull is able to shield your brain from injuries. Unfortunately, it isn’t a perfect system of protection. What you know about protecting your brain can make a major difference in your health and even save your life.
The bones that make up the skull are solid. Your brain is not. Think like your head is a car again. If you press on the brakes, your body will keep moving forward if you aren’t wearing your seat belt. That same principle holds true if you are hit in the head or jolted strongly enough. The movement of your head can cause an injury, simply from the force of your brain bumping into the inside of your skull.
Injured brain cells have trouble communicating with each other, disrupting normal brain function. This kind of injury is called a concussion. You don’t have to be a pro football player to get one, either. The leading cause of traumatic brain injury in the United States from 2006 to 2010 was falls. Another 14 percent were caused by car crashes.
The symptoms of a concussion vary based on the severity of the injury. Minor concussions can simply leave a person disoriented or slow to react. More severe concussions can cause loss of consciousness and even death. When a person suffers concussions repeatedly, the dangers also increase dramatically and the brain loses its ability to recover and return to its original level of function.
Know The Signs
Minor concussion symptoms are a sign that a person needs to be evaluated by a medical professional. In athletes, these definitely signal that they should not play until they are seen by a qualified provider or specialist. These symptoms include:
- Being dazed or disoriented (blank stare or difficulty answering/focusing)
- Confusion (inability to correctly answer time, date or where they are)
- Delayed reactions or difficulty with balance and coordination
- Blurred or double vision, seeing stars or spots, or having trouble tracking movement with the eyes
There are also signs that come with head injuries that indicate a need to seek emergency medical attention or call 911. These include:
- Any loss of consciousness, no matter how brief (being “knocked out”). The longer the period of unconsciousness, the more severe the injury.
- Nausea or vomiting
- Seizure or convulsions
- Pupils of the eyes being different sizes
Diagnosing a concussion isn’t always easy. For someone suspected of having a concussion, it’s very common to do CT or MRI scans of the head, but these are to check for even more severe injuries or fractures of the skull. They can’t actually diagnose a concussion itself.
In order to diagnose a concussion, I talk to the patient about the after-effects of their injury. Common complaints include:
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Trouble thinking or focusing
- Difficulty following movement with their eyes, to the point they may become dizzy or nauseated from attempting to do so
- Behavioral changes (being moody, irritable or prone to unusual outbursts)
- Difficulty sleeping
Anyone suffering these symptoms after an injury, even one that they aren’t certain involved their head, should seek medical care. Time is also a factor. Waiting can prolong recovery or result in long-term problems.
The bad news about concussion is that we can only treat the symptoms. The brain needs time to heal and recover after trauma. In the case of athletes, that may mean sitting out for a time. As difficult as that might be, it’s important because players who try to hide a concussion are putting themselves at risk for permanent brain injury, paralysis and even death.
Medical treatments for the symptoms of concussion include:
- Physical rest: No running, sports or strenuous activity until cleared by a medical provider.
- Mental rest: No TV, video games, reading or use of electronic devices. Students with a concussion should be granted a break from exams and difficult coursework.
- Sleep: Proper sleep is very important to recovering from a concussion, as directed by a medical provider.
- Medication: Certain prescription drugs can help with the symptoms of a concussion. However, this is not always possible, based on individual circumstances.
- Therapy: Certain types of physical, occupational and speech/cognitive therapy are very valuable for helping people recover from concussions.
If you have questions or concerns about concussion or treatment, talk to a provider or see a specialist like myself. We want to give you every opportunity to use your head for years to come.
Dr. Jeanie McCormack is a neurologist with Owensboro Health Medical Group.
This article was first published in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.