By Dominique Liboiron
The topic of concussions is receiving more and more attention. Both the public and the medical community are realizing they need to take this form of injury more seriously then they did in the past. Because of this greater interest, it’s important to understand what a concussion is and how it’s treated. This article is the first in an in-depth series that will shed light on a life-changing and potentially life-ending condition.
Over the course of the last few years, there have been several high-profile news reports associated with concussions. Typically, these stories come from the sporting world. Although some sports increase the risk of having a concussion, the reality is that athletes aren’t the only people who get concussed. There is a very high likelihood that you know at least one person who has had a concussion or maybe you’ve had one.
If you ask within your circle of friends, you’ll probably hear stories of people who sustained a head injury as a result of a car accident, a fall, a punch to the head, perhaps from playing recreational sports or from many other common occurrences. That being said, the person might not be able to say for sure if they had a concussion or not. Keep in mind that until fairly recently, about the last ten to twelve years, concussions weren’t well understood and often went undiagnosed. Even today, much needs to be learned about head injuries on the part of the public and medical professionals alike. Some older doctors never even learned about concussions in medical school.
In most cases, a person becomes concussed in one of three ways. The first is through an impact to the skull. Examples of this could be hitting your head against a hard surface such as pavement or ice. A punch or kick to the head would also be enough. The skull pushes against the brain causing injury.
However, it isn’t necessary to be struck in the head to get concussed. The second way a concussion could occur is if a person’s brain is jarred, shaken or sloshed against the inside of the skull. A sudden, abrupt stop such as during a motor vehicle accident could trigger this.
The third manner in which a concussion might happen is due to shock waves from an explosion. This is more common in a military environment where there are strong detonations, but any accidental explosion in the home or workplace could also be responsible for a concussion.
No matter how it occurred, a concussion is a brain injury and any wound to such an important part of the body is always serious – no exceptions. To put it simply, a concussion is a disruption to the brain’s wiring. Because the wires have been damaged, messages aren’t sent or get lost along the way.
From a diagnosis point of view, it can be a bit tricky for health care professionals to detect the injury. A concussion isn’t like a broken bone. You can’t see a concussion, only the symptoms. To complicate matters, the injury can manifest itself in different people in different ways. Two individuals can be concussed and not show the same symptoms. In fact, there are many symptoms and some of them can be quite subtle whereas others are more obvious.
Because concussions can be unique and show a variety of symptoms, doctors typically use a selection of tests on their patients. The doctor will ask the patient to perform tests that check for balance, co-ordination, strength, speech and memory. Putting together the results of many tests allows for a more accurate diagnosis.
Frequent symptoms associated with this kind of injury are headaches, confusion, lack of co-ordination, dizziness, blurred vision, short and long-term memory loss, slow speech or speech with improper word order, fluid leaking from the ears, feeling much more emotional than normally, nausea, ringing in the ears, sleepiness, sensitivity to light and sound, trouble focusing, loss of patience, outbursts of anger or even rage and more. Some people report feeling they don’t feel like themselves anymore while others feel a profound and aching sense that they’ve lost their identity, especially if they can no longer do activities that defined them. This is often the case with athletes who must quit their sport.
In the past, a patient needed to have been knocked unconscious in order to be diagnosed with a concussion. That isn’t the case anymore. A loss of consciousness isn’t a prerequisite for diagnosis. In fact, some of the most recent research suggests that repeated sub-concussive hits, that is to say impacts to the head that don’t concuss, can lead to the same symptoms over time.
While concussions probably aren’t more common now than in the past, one major difference is that the public and the medical community are becoming increasingly aware that this type of injury needs to be taken seriously.
In the next instalment of this series, we’ll learn how Sidney Crosby’s concussion was a game-changer in the sporting world.