June 19, 2014 in Washington Voices

Steve Christilaw: Thankfully, we’re learning more about dangers of concussions

Steve Christilaw

We used to have a cavalier attitude about head injuries. We called it “getting your bell rung” and were often told to just “shake it off.” “No blood, no foul,” we said.

And then we began to learn about the dangers of repeated concussions. It took some tragic events to learn those lessons, but virtually everything we’ve learned about traumatic brain injury has grown from tragedy.

Perhaps the most important lesson is this: A brain injured by a concussion is especially vulnerable to another such injury. And it’s that second concussion that’s especially dangerous and can be, in some cases, fatal. 

Both the Washington Legislature and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the governing body for interscholastic sports, have taken action to protect young athletes who are suspected of suffering a head injury.

The Legislature passed the Zack Lystedt Law that requires young athletes to get medical clearance before returning to play after a suspected concussion. The WIAA requires coaches to be trained in concussion recognition while most school districts have hired medical professionals to help look for potential injuries.

But head injuries don’t just happen on an athletic field. A fall from a bike or skateboard, or a car or ATV crash can be just as dangerous. In fact, anything that causes a jarring blow to the head can potentially cause a concussion.  

And not all head injuries produce the same symptoms.  Experts say roughly 10 percent of brain injuries result in unconsciousness or being “knocked out.”

In fact, one of the few constants we’ve learned about head injuries like concussion is that everyone is different. Most kids will “not feel well” for a while after an injury, but will recover quickly. But how long it will take varies.

Children’s Hospital in St. Louis developed a checklist of symptoms, and it’s worth keeping in mind.

It breaks down symptoms into three categories: physical, cognitive and emotional.

In the physical category, symptoms include headaches, fatigue (seeming tired, trouble staying awake), trouble sleeping, lack of energy (slow moving), blurry or double vision, sensitivity to noise or light, dizziness (feeling lightheaded), and nausea.

Cognitive symptoms include not remembering how the concussion happened, becoming easily confused, slowness in thinking (seeming “foggy” or “zoned out”), difficulty paying attention, forgetfulness, and more difficulty at school than normal.

Emotional or behavioral symptoms include becoming easily annoyed or angry (seeming cranky or irritable), feeling worried or nervous, seeming emotional (crying more easily than normal), and personality changes.

The checklist also includes a list of symptoms that worsen within the first or second days after the injury: loses consciousness; is extremely sleepy or drowsy and can’t be awakened; vomits repeatedly; gets a headache that worsens, lasts for a long time or is severe; has weakness, numbness, trouble walking or decreased coordination; has difficulty recognizing familiar people; is very confused; has trouble talking or slurred speech; has a seizure; cries nonstop and cannot be comforted; or has any other sudden or unusual change in thinking or behavior. If you spot any of these symptoms, get immediate medical help.

If you suspect a concussion, get medical help right away – especially from a health care professional experienced in concussion management.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that symptoms of a concussion can appear immediately, or they can appear hours or even days after the injury.

That means it’s important to be familiar with the warning signs and symptoms of a concussion.

And if you spot the first concussion, you can take steps to avoid the second. 

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