A Brief Guide to Traumatic Brain Injury
Concussions are complicated. Each new report of an athlete’s early retirement brings traumatic brain injury back to the public’s attention and with it, a range of questions, concerns and doubts.
Studies are regularly exploring the effects of high-impact sports on brain function, and helmet and mouth guard technology is evolving for better protection. But in the meantime, athletes of all ages in a wide range of sports continue to suffer concussions.
What follows is a brief guide to understanding, identifying and treating concussions. If you or someone around you does suffer a concussion, consult your physician immediately and throughout the recovery process. In most cases, the athlete can fully recover with proper treatment.
When to Be Aware
Concussions are considered traumatic brain injuries – also known as TBIs. They can be the result of a direct bump or blow to the head as well as a hit to the body that shakes the head suddenly. Rapid movement bounces the brain around in the skull, stretching and damaging brain cells and creating chemical changes in the brain.
Recognize and Take Action
Common knowledge used to suggest that concussions only occurred when there was a loss of consciousness. However, most experts now agree that concussions may also present with more subtle symptoms. If you observe or experience any of the immediate symptoms of a concussion, remove yourself or the injured athlete from the action. Seek an evaluation from a medical professional as soon as possible. After receiving direction from a physician, parents, coaches and supervisors should all be aligned on the best course of treatment, recovery and, if appropriate, return to play.
Concussion symptoms are usually considered either observed or reported. Whether you or someone around you has sustained an impact injury, familiarity with both types of symptoms can help you and others best identify a potential concussion.
Observed symptoms, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include:
- Inability to remember events prior to or after the hit or fall
- Dazed or stunned behavior
- Inability to remember instruction
- Confusion about position or assignment
- Clumsy movements
- Slow to answer questions
- Loss of consciousness (even briefly)
- Mood, behavior or personality changes
Experienced, or reported, symptoms, also from the CDC, include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Double or blurry vision
- Sensitivity to light or noise
- Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy or groggy
- Confusion, concentration or memory problems
- Generally not feeling “right”
Symptoms can be delayed for several days after injury, and may appear or continue concurrent with the short-term effects.
During recovery, most people will suffer from a temporary impairment of brain function. They may find it more difficult to process and remember information and may be more emotional than usual. Many of the immediate signs such as headache, dizziness and feeling sluggish continue during this period. Drowsiness is also common after a concussion.
The key to healing is complete rest – both physical and mental. Most people recover from a concussion in 7-10 days, though experiencing symptoms for weeks or even months is not unusual. Younger athletes and children in particular can take longer to recover.
Physical activities and those that involve concentration – like studying or working – should be limited to prevent the return of symptoms. You may also want to suspend reading, video games and television. With all activities, taking it slowly will be most important. A gradual return to activity provides enough time for the injury to heal without aggravating any symptoms. Focus first on a return to school and day-to-day function before considering return to play.
Returning to Play
When most symptoms and signs are gone, you can usually return to physical and mental activity. Before returning to play, athletes must pass return-to-play protocol. This can vary by state, but most often involves receiving clearance from a licensed medical professional.
Again, this process should be slow, because the brain has not necessarily healed entirely. Add an activity to your routine and monitor the common symptoms, but keep in touch with your physician. Most return-to-play protocols involve a progression from light aerobic activity to moderate activity to heavy non-contact activity and finally full-contact practice and competition.