Imagine a doctor trying to assess an injured limb with no senses. It’s virtually impossible, right? Well, that’s what it’s like trying to diagnose a concussion. It can’t be seen by the naked eye and it is almost never picked up by any medical equipment. It can’t be heard or smelled, and the only one that can feel it is the injured, but even more difficult, every person experiences different symptoms and every concussion one person receives feels different, too. Take it from me, I’ve survived enough concussions and done enough research to be able to reassure myself that I am qualified to write an article on the subject. But before we get into the meaty part of this – the part where upon reading you will most likely not want to step foot on the field or arena again – let me tell you my story.
I started playing sports fairly late, at nine years old. I have played for several girls’ hockey teams in Toronto, and my aspiration was to play university hockey in the US. I was on the road to success, but my first concussion stopped me dead in my tracks. At first, I had no idea what it was. Catching an edge and falling head first into the boards during a game left me feeling, well, embarrassed, but also with a headache and a weird feeling that I couldn’t really place. It felt like nothing serious, and the best way I could describe it was that there was fogginess in my train of thought.
Because of this, I missed the end of the season, the entire provincial playdowns, and two and a half months of school. It was, of course, devastating, but also the first real experience I had with sports injury. It set me three months behind those I was trying out with in April, and so I didn’t make the team I should have. I thought it was unfair, but everyone encounters obstacles, so I signed up for several summer hockey camps and teams, and promised myself that I would work extra-hard the coming season to recover the hours of ice time I had missed. However, my second concussion came in the second period of the very first game of the season. That night, I laughed out loud as the headaches came on again and tried to understand just exactly what I had done to deserve this.
Though I had headaches and that weird feeling again, this time coupled with dizziness, I was in such disbelief that this had happened to me again that I downplayed it to myself and others. I went to a concussion-specific health clinic, where I was told that I was to stay home for one week to recover, but seven days later, the headaches had gotten worse. Fast-forward one month, and I was still at home, feeling out of shape and extremely depressed.
I felt like I was going nowhere, and unbelievably helpless. Finally, I started back at school for half-days and began to practise with my team, but it took four months before I was caught up in school and ready to play in a game. In those months, I had discussed the possibility of never playing in a game again with my parents, coach and even the school social worker, but I couldn’t imagine that happening. I mean, I was the team captain, so I needed to come back, for my team and my coaches. I needed to get into a good university with a scholarship, and hockey would be my key to doing that. I loved hockey! Couldn’t anyone see that hockey was my thing, my sport?
This is a problem, when emotions get in the way of making a rational decision, so my parents made the decision for me, and their decision broke my heart.
A concussion is any trauma to the brain or neck resulting in brain movement inside of the skull. A small to moderate concussion can leave you with a headache and make you feel dizzy, dazed, or ‘mentally foggy’ (as I was). Those who sustain a severe concussion could be knocked out, in a comatose state, or suffer memory loss.
It has been proven that women are three times more likely to suffer a sports-related concussion than men their age. It has also been found that, on average, it takes girls longer to recover from concussions than boys. Doctors don’t know why, but there are several possibilities. It could be a result of girls having weaker neck tissue than boys, or that girls are usually more willing to report a concussion than boys are. Stereotypes aside, perhaps it is due to the fact that girls are never taught in practices how to safely absorb the shock of an impact, because there is (supposedly) no hitting in girls’ hockey.
Maybe it is a combination of the above factors. Whatever the case, sports-related concussions are affecting many girls and hindering their ability to play sports, to go to school and to be healthy. The scariest part of it is that even one concussion can cause long-lasting effects that may only be evident many years after the initial injury. Having one concussion significantly increases one’s risk in getting another, more severe head injury. Neurologists have recently discovered a brain condition found through the autopsy of pro boxers and football players’ brains called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the result of too many concussions. This condition can bring on constant headaches, depression, explosive behaviour and eventually dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Several of these athletes have committed murders, or ended their own lives.
Concussions, especially in girls, are an epidemic, and the tally of the injured will continue to rise in the future. Every 21 seconds, someone in the US suffers a brain injury. Girls, parents, coaches, please understand that this is not going away. “This will never happen to me,” was my thought before my first concussion, and look at where I’m at now.
Right about now, you’re probably wondering what the point of this article is. It’s not to try to convince you that I’m a neurologist, and it’s not because I want sympathy. I want to make sure that you have information, because knowledge is power. I also now realize that what happened to me was not my fault. So, I guess what I’m really trying to do here is to present you with the facts, so you’re aware (but not paranoid). I hope that, through reading this, you realize that there is a risk factor in everything that we do, so you must not take playing sports for granted, because you never know when your last game or practice will be. Enjoy the wins and the losses, and take pride in your abilities and the fact that you’re healthy. Be aware, and cherish, appreciate every moment of failure or glory, and then you will have no regrets.