Concussions: A First-Hand Account from a Professional Athlete: A hot topic in professional sports and among parents with children in sports is concussions. There has been a lot learned on the subject in the past thirty years, but injuries to the brain due to blows to the head are still a science in its infancy.
Chris Nowinski, who went to Harvard University with my husband Aaron Kessler, is co-founder and executive director of Sports Legacy Institute to research brain trauma in sports; their work is ongoing and has provided many breakthroughs, but there is still a lot we just do not know.
Particularly, everyone is different and how your brain reacts to physical pounding can vary from individual to individual. However, one thing is clear; the brain is not something to mess around with and, left untreated, a concussion can cause complications down the road. It may not be tomorrow or next year, but long-term effects can rear its ugly head at some point in your lifetime.
One eye-opening result of this increased awareness of concussions is how middle and high school certified fitness trainers react to an athlete who is showing concussion symptoms. In my high school days, concussions were not a topic people discussed with regularity. If an athlete were knocked woozy, they would typically enter back into the contest. This is particularly the case in football where the macho mentality takes over above common sense. Nowadays, at high schools like where I attended, The Columbus Academy, concussions are taken very seriously, and when diagnosed, athletes are handled with care. I have heard of athletes who have sat out entire years because of a concussion and the precautions taken to ensure proper healing.
Once again, everyone is different, and one individual’s blow to the head where recovery is quick can be another’s living nightmare. Researchers have tried to pinpoint the concerned point for hits to the skull and have even monitored helmets to achieve these results. It is tough to put a hard and fast rule on this number, but they are getting more educated on what this range might be.
Although I am no scientist, I do have experiences with three concussions in a short period. The best way to provide advice is to relay what I had to deal with over the course of this two-article series on the subject. Some of my concussions were less dramatic than others, but they all add up to an increased likelihood of having some complications in my life whether it is subtle or more pronounced. How I responded to the traumatic events may or may not have been the right choices but, hopefully, you can use the blueprint to make your own decisions as to how to proceed.
Although I do not recall any significant hits to the head in high school and college athletics, I did play at a high level, and I can’t be certain they didn’t occur. My first diagnosed concussion was in August of 2012 during a training bike ride around Los Angeles. The individual riding in front of me lost control and skidded to the ground as we were going down a hill around forty miles per hour. My decision was to try to hop over him or slide to the ground to his right, and this was the option I took in the heat of the moment. My head hit the ground, and my Rudy Project helmet exploded; it did save me a lot of agonies and possible further brain trauma, so it thankfully did its job. The individual in front of me broke his leg, so an ambulance was called. My body was in shock, skid marks all around; ribs bruised but I still wanted to finish the ride. Fellow triathletes who were on the ride convinced me to go to the hospital, and I am glad they did because, in these types of situations, adrenaline takes over and you can’t feel the immense pain your body is in, including your brain.
The diagnosis in the emergency room was no broken bones. This was music to my ears. I have a general distaste for hospitals, so I was glad to leave with ‘a clean bill of health; little did I know this was the start of a tough recovery. I actually believed that I was going to join the group swim later in the day and then the adrenaline wore off and the pain sat in throughout my body. Every inch of my body was in extreme agony, and I boarded myself in my hotel room to nurse my wounds. The pain was so severe, and my mind was so clouded, I had to call my husband, who was on a fishing trip, to fly to LA and help me travel to my parent’s home in Columbus, OH where I had planned a trip after the training camp. Lifting bags was impossible, making snap decisions was tough, and completing small tasks took longer than normal.
I recovered for a week or so and started stationary biking because swimming was out of the question because of the bruised ribs. The fogginess slowly subsided but the body was still not right. The need to find out what exactly was wrong with me outweighed the benefits of exercise. When I returned from San Francisco, I went to my physical therapist who stated that I had a fracture in my vertebrae, so more recovery was needed to heal properly.
This is devastating news for any athlete who thrives on competition so patience, which is not necessarily a driven athlete’s strong suit, was needed to return.
In retrospect, I should’ve gotten a proper diagnosis in LA right after the accident, but the emergency room is not the place for a professional athlete wanting a thorough examination; they want you in and out.
If you find yourself in a difficult situation with a concussion or injury, resist the urge to come back right away and get proper treatment. Your body and mind will thank you for your prudent decision.