Sports-related head injuries are a trending topic, with Super Bowl 50 coming up on Feb. 7 and the recent release of Concussion, a film starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neurologist whose research raised awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma.
A concussion is a traumatically induced alteration in mental status with or without loss of consciousness. A blow to the head is a common way to suffer a concussion, but a hard hit to the body that jars or shakes the brain may also result in this type of head injury.
While it’s true that athletes participating in contact sports like football, soccer, rugby, boxing and hockey have the greatest risk for concussions, anyone who experiences a car accident or hard fall also is at risk.
Up to 3.8 million Americans suffer concussions each year, and a history of prior concussion puts you at greater risk for future injury. You may forget what happened just prior to your injury, and it may take hours to weeks to recover. While a few concussions over time likely won’t have long-term effects, repeated concussions can lead to chronic injury.
Mild symptoms of a concussion may include difficulty thinking clearly, inability to concentrate or remember new information, headache, fuzzy or blurred vision, dizziness, nausea, sleeping more or less than usual, sensitivity to light or noise, balance problems, lack of energy or fatigue, nervousness, anxiousness and generally heightened emotions.
There is no single test to determine if you’ve suffered a concussion. Doctors may perform a neurological exam, a cognitive assessment, neurocognitive testing and balance testing. If it appears you also have a skull fracture or serious neurological deficits, CT imaging may be necessary.
Observation, whether in a hospital setting or at home, is the best way to assure early detection of complications, which may include swelling of the brain or bleeding around or within the brain itself. Watch for a headache that does not go away or worsens; weakness, numbness or incoordination; slurred speech; extreme drowsiness; pupil asymmetry; seizures and increasing confusion. If you experience any of these symptoms, get to a hospital as soon as possible.
In the days and weeks following a concussion, get plenty of sleep, avoid alcohol, use ice packs as needed and restrict physical activity. Use pain medication only as directed by a doctor — do not self-medicate with drugs left over from a previous surgery or condition, as the side effects of those drugs may be confused with symptoms of a concussion.
For athletes, don’t return to play until all symptoms are resolved, or return gradually. If you experience chronic or persistent cognitive deficits, it’s time to retire from the sport.
Whether on the professional football field, the Little League diamond or an icy sidewalk, if you find yourself the victim of a jarring blow to your head or body, get checked by a physician sooner rather than later to mitigate any long-term effects.
Dr. Warren Chumley is KentuckyOne Health Neurology Associates