I am, like many other people, a student athlete. I have been playing rugby since I was 14 years old and the topic discussed this week in class took me quite by surprise. As an athlete at the age of 22 still engaged in a full contact sport I had no idea what exactly what a concussion was. I have myself suffered from a concussion on more than one occasion but I never thought very of them. I had always had the impression that they were sort of like a small brain bruise. Painful and annoying, but temporary with no lasting effects. I could not have been more wrong!
When you suffer a blow to the head or your head is caused to stop suddenly your brain also receives much of that force. This force causes the brain to move, stretching neurons. As the neurons are stretched various neurotransmitters effectively get squeezed out of them, sort of like twisting and stretching a wet wash cloth. The neurotransmitters that are rapidly released can cause swelling, increased blood flow, and even minor cell death. It also can cause confusion when signals are being sent through the injured part of the brain. These are what cause the characteristic headache, nausea, and mild amnesia associated with concussion.
That information alone changed my view on concussions enormously but there was even more to learn. The imbalance of neurotransmitters is not something that the brain can clear up quickly. Residual imbalances can last for weeks and recovery time varies depending on the person. During the recovery period those who have suffered a concussion should not only cease physical activity until cleared by a doctor but they should also limit the strain they put on their brain academically. After a concussion strenuous use of the brain like reading for extended periods of time can exacerbate the problem and cause headaches. Children take more time to recover from concussions than adults do which I thought would have been the other way around. Also if an athlete returns to play before the concussion has healed completely there is a significantly greater chance that they will suffer another, more severe concussion. There is also a chance that the athlete could suffer a very rare injury called second impact syndrome which can cause death within minutes of the second impact.
As an athlete who has participated in a contact sport for many years I felt that I should have been more aware of what exactly a concussion was. Having suffered multiple myself, one of which was rather severe (my nose was broken and two of my front teeth were knocked out), I would have liked to know that perhaps I shouldn’t have been doing some of the things I did afterwards. The concussion occurred on a Sunday afternoon and I was back in school on Tuesday and back at practice the following Monday. The rule for my league was I only had to sit for a week so long as my doctor cleared me and I felt OK to play. At the time I felt just fine but I feel like I may have made a different decision if I had known more about what was going on.