What my personal experience with concussion has taught me

BY: KAROLINA URBAN

Summer is here and with it comes the inevitable concern for safety and injury prevention. From organized sports such as soccer and rugby, to recreational activities such as wakeboarding, tubing, biking or your friendly match of volleyball, there is always a risk of a concussion.

Concussions are not limited to a direct hit to the head. They can also be the result of a large biomechanical force, known as a acceleration-deceleration injury, which causes the brain to move within the skull.

The rate of concussions occur in 754 per 100 000 for boys and 440 per 100 000 for girls. Nearly one-third of these injuries are the result of falls, while skating and hockey account for the greatest number of sports related concussions in Canada.

photo credit: UPEI Panthers at Saint Mary's Huskies (Nov 27 2010, Halifax NS) via photopin (license)
photo credit: UPEI Panthers at Saint Mary’s Huskies (Nov 27 2010, Halifax NS) via photopin (license)

The difficulty with assessing or recognizing a concussion is the wide range of symptoms that vary as a result of the heterogeneity of injury. These symptoms can range from being physical in nature (i.e. headaches or dizziness), to cognitive (i.e. difficulty concentrating), to behavioral (i.e. depression, anxiety) or sleep-related (i.e. difficulty falling asleep or sleeping too much.)

80  per cent of adults recover from a concussion within two weeks. For children, the recovery process tends to be slower, but despite the longer recovery period, it has been shown that most of the pediatric population does not continue to have long-term difficulties. However, around 14 per cent of the children who sustain a concussion continue to have symptoms beyond three months after injury. As a parent, guardian, coach or friend it is critical to recognize the impact of concussions, know how to prevent them and how to promote recovery.

Throughout my hockey career I always had this willingness to do whatever it took to win. In the face of injury I would shrug off the pain and continue to compete. In my second year of hockey at the University of Toronto I sustained a concussion in the last season game. From what I recall, the puck came out of a scrum in the neutral zone and the next thing I can remember is sitting on the bench feeling ‘out of it.’ My line-mate asked whether I was okay and I simply responded, “Oh yeah, lets go.”

Image via Facebook
Rowan Stringer; Image via Facebook

Luckily there were only few minutes left in the game as I continued to play. That evening I began to feel worse, more anxious, dizzy and fatigued. But as I had always done, I continued on until the next evening, I went to class, wrote an exam (which I did horribly on) and continued onto practice. As we began to do skating drills, I began to feel nauseous and dizzy and finally agreed to get an official diagnosis. Although I took this step, I quickly got cleared to play again as game one of playoffs was eight days later.

It was quite evident I was no were near ready to return to play. I missed the puck several times, my reaction times were slower, my head was hurting and I was dizzy every time I turned. To be honest I probably hurt my team more than helped. I was, however, extremely lucky to have not sustained another hit to my head. This is called ‘second impact syndrome’ where you undergo another hit to the head when you haven’t given your brain time to recover from the first injury. Impact to the brain during this vulnerable period may result in devastating consequences, such as with the recent death of high school rugby player Rowan Stringer.

If you or someone you know has sustained a concussion, there are return-to-life and play guidelines to help. The Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation has produced pediatric concussion guidelines and has information on persistent concussion symptoms. Parachute has return-to-play guidelines which are also a valuable guide for concerned parents and athletes.

These guidelines are the most up to date and based on research. However, I would like to impart some of the things I have learned throughout my career and the few concussions I have had:

  1. Remove yourself from the activity you are doing. I know this is hard but you are probably putting yourself at risk for a longer or more complicated injury. If you want to get back out there as quickly as possible and avoid more serious injuries, it is critical to stop what you are doing. 
  2. Give yourself time to rest – some of the symptoms of concussion can develop up to 24-36 hours after the injury occurred. So jumping right back into a high risk activity can put you at more risk.
  3. If something doesn’t feel good, stop. If you hurt a muscle and felt the pain when you began running you would stop, so don’t treat your brain any differently. I think this is particularly important when you are trying to get back to your life and sport. Monitoring how your brain feels when you are beginning to re-integrate yourself into all your activities is key.
  4. Be patient – For me this was the most difficult one. Some days you begin to feel better and think that you have recovered and then the next you feel worse again. This can be extremely frustrating, especially if you want to get back to school or back to what you love doing. As long as you are aware that it’s not going to be a straight forward recovery, then maybe you can lower that frustration.
  5. Rest, but don’t sleep all day. Previously it was thought that it was important to completely isolate yourself, stay in a dark room until you felt better and your symptoms were gone. However more recent research has shown that full rest can have a negative effect on brain health and recovery. After the suggested 24-hour rest period, begin to get back into what you are doing, slowly. Go for a walk or try cooking dinner, but whatever it is, make sure you’re moving in small steps.
  6. Define your priorities. One common symptom for  people is fatigue and difficulty to concentrate. If you overwhelm yourself you could hinder your recovery.
  7. This so-called ‘invisible injury’ is nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of and it is okay to not feel comfortable doing something that everyone else is. All that matters is taking care of your brain and you need to do whatever it takes to take the appropriate steps.

 Karolina Urban is a former University of Toronto and Canadian Women’s Hockey League player. Currently she is a PhD student at the Concussion Centre in Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Hospital. 

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