Clearing Up the Concussion Confusion

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By Ashby Strauch

With recent films and ESPN specials, concussions have been portrayed in the media as an injury that causes long-term, irreversible symptoms, but in reality, most people fully recover from a concussion–though they can be painful and the recovery process can take quite a while. This, along with media coverage, has resulted in a misunderstanding in the public’s perception of concussions.

What is a concussion?

There are many different ways to define a concussion, as because it is a very individual injury that varies significantly in its extremity, symptoms and recovery plan.

A concussion can be caused by a hard blow to the head like many football players regularly sustain while playing.

“It can also be caused by an impact to somewhere else on the body that is enough to cause some sort of disruption to the neurons of the brain that causes an alteration of consciousness or mental function,” says Aliyah Snyder, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology with a specialization in neuropsychology at the University of Florida.

A concussion can also be caused by a fall, which causes about a third of non-athletes concussions.

The media’s focus on the impact that concussions have on football players have left many people confused about the disparity between different concussion experiences.

Although some studies have found a correlation between depression and early onset dementia with concussions, these risks are complicated by genetic and behavioral risks.

“It’s not a straight-forward relationship,” Snyder says.

But the greater the number of concussions sustained by a person, the higher his or her risk can be for having additional adverse symptoms. It is very probable that a person will be able to fully recover from his or her first or second concussion without any long-term side effects.

But while concussions are met with a greater understanding on the field or court, everyday people still face a stigma surrounding an invisible injury during their recovery process. Sometimes even by the doctors they seek help from.

Martin Rico is well-versed in this recovery process.

Rico, a former CEO of a software company in San Antonio, Texas, sustained a concussion in a car accident in April 2014 when a driver ran through a stop sign. He was initially cleared by EMTs with a clear bill of health, but the next day he started displaying symptoms of a concussion.

A day later, he started experiencing dizziness, which made him fear that he would lose consciousness. He was taken to this hospital, where a CAT scan determined he didn’t have a brain injury.

After his symptoms–headaches, mental fatigue, general fatigue and vision problems–persisted into May 2014, Rico decided to visit a local neurologist. The neurologist told him that he didn’t have a concussion because he thought a concussion is caused when something hits your head and causes you to lose consciousness.

There have been more studies done on concussions in the past five years than the amount done in the last 50 years, but it is not clear if this has led to the professional medical community to a clear consensus on what a concussion is and how to best treat it.

Rico knew that his neurologist was incorrect, but he wasn’t able to get an appointment with a different neurologist in San Antonio for months due to long waiting lists.

San Antonio has some of the most advanced concussion treatment centers like the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, but it only serves veterans. There were also local sports concussion centers, but Rico was told they didn’t treat auto accident patients. He believed this was because the clinic would have to deal with lawyers and risk payments being delayed for long periods of time.

Rico’s symptoms continued to persist. He saw an optometrist to help alleviate his vision problems. His optometrist gave increased his prescription, which is the exact opposite of what should have been done.

Rico began spending whatever amount of time he could on the Internet researching concussions. He was only able to look at computer screens for 30 minutes to an hour because of his impaired vision. He came across an article regarding Post-Concussion Syndrome by Dr. Eric Singman and realized he was displaying all the symptoms.

Rico was able to get an appointment to see Dr. Singman at Johns Hopkins Hospital many miles away in Baltimore, Maryland.

The night before Rico was leaving for Johns Hopkins, he experienced a panic attack. Rico was use to traveling all over the world, so this was out of the ordinary for him. He calmed himself down by walking in circles. Rico felt anxious while he was in the airport and on the plane. He took a Xanax to calm himself down, and he finally felt okay.

At Johns Hopkins, Rico was given a weaker eyeglass prescription to lessen the strain on his eyes along with other highly specialized treatments that corrected his vision issues. Johns Hopkins didn’t have an actual concussion clinic, so Dr. Singman helped Rico set up appointments with a variety of professionals that could help him.

When Rico got home, he began experimenting with ways to cope with his Post-Concussion Syndrome. He began monitoring his exercising, working part-time, engaging in neurofeedback, and taking progesterone. He tried just about anything that could help him get his life back to normal.

One day, he learned about the Sports Medicine Clinic at UPCM Pittsburgh. He was finally able to receive the care that he needed. He was advised to try an “expose and recover” process, which would desensitize him to things that made him tired. He was also advised to stop tracking every aspect of his health.

Ultimately, Rico fully recovered from his concussion although it took a long and frustrating 13 months.

The recovery plans for concussions varies on an individual basis. One of the main focuses of recovery is finding the perfect mixture between getting enough rest from physical and mental activity and slowly integrating physical and mental activity back into people’s lives.

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