Today there is increased awareness about sports-related brain injuries including concussions, in part due to the premature deaths of young athletes and the advancements in brain injury research. In addition to ensuring that athletes don’t return to sports too quickly after a brain injury, there are prevention lessons for all of us, whether we’ve ever played competitive sports or we’re many years beyond the age in which we played and were first injured.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading causes of brain injuries such as concussions are falls, motor vehicle accidents, colliding with a stationary or moving object and assaults. Research has shown that that once a person suffers a concussion, there’s a fourfold increase in the likelihood he’ll sustain another. Additionally, after multiple concussions, a lesser blow can have a more disabling or deadly consequence.
It’s taken three head injuries – one incurred playing sports – for me to fully appreciate what these facts mean.
In mid-August, I fell into the category of suffering a concussion from colliding with a stationary object: I was washing a car. I stepped away, turned too fast to get back in the car, and slammed my head against the roof. In the eight weeks that have passed, I’ve lost valuable personal and work time to post-concussion syndrome – time away from my office, my routines and my family.
I found myself suddenly unable to read, write, speak or understand what people were saying. Always a writer, having spent nearly 20 years working in publishing and communications, I was alarmed when I realized I couldn’t make sense out of letters, or whether they were actually symbols or had meaning, much less whether they were parts of words and the words themselves parts of phrases. My memory was affected: I couldn’t recall three one-syllable words that had been given to me only minutes beforehand. I couldn’t explain figurative language.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” the nurse practitioner said, and I responded with a blank expression. “I think I used to know what that means,” I thought, but couldn’t even say.
As doctors promised, cognitive skills are returning. I can better process and recall information, solve problems and perceive the world around me. My motor skills – the ability to hold a pen or walk more than 30 yards – are returning. But if progress to date suggests the speed of recovery, it will be months before I am performing daily activities at pre-injury levels.
These skills were lost, in part, because I had reached a category of advanced risk. Two incidents decades ago contributed to the difficult recovery from a “lesser blow.”
As a competitive swimmer from youth into high school, I once had to be removed from a pool halfway through a race when I hit my head on the wall instead of executing a turn. As a young adult, I fell from a faulty garden swing, hitting the ground head-first. Neither of these incidents caused challenges like I’ve faced over the past two months, nor did they inspire me to live with a healthy level of concern about potential subsequent concussions.
This injury, however, has provided a too-clear understanding of how important it is to take seriously the recovery period from a concussion, and to ensure safe play and concussion prevention in the years beyond any brain injury, regardless of how inconsequential the injury may have initially seemed. This injury instilled awareness of what life could be like with a permanent brain injury – and it shouldn’t need to take reaching this stage for athletes, parents and coaches to become committed to mitigating the long-term risks.
For weeks after the injury, I was left without coordination and balance, without an understanding of depths, distances or physical boundaries. What I’ve learned, though, is that it’s concussions that know no boundaries, even far from the sports fields.
Katie Bowler is director of global relations for UNC Global at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is the author of “State Street.”