Hitting My Head Taught Me There’s A LOT We Don’t Know About Concussion
I lost 10 minutes (or was it 15?) of my life that day. I had just completed a glorious group ride with my cycling club and was on my way home, having forgone the usual coffee stop to head home to the kids. One minute I was cruising along a back-road, not even 500 metres from my house, and the next thing I remember a stranger was calling my husband while I was sprawled on the side of the road; “Your wife has been in an accident and has hit her head. Come quickly!”
Related: How To Stay Safe On The Roads
What happened next was a blur. Panic because I couldn’t remember what happened. A blinding headache. A mad dash to the ER. And because of the amnesia, a CT scan, which fortunately revealed no brain bleed. A concussion was diagnosed and I was sent home, armed with a pamphlet of what to (and what not to) do in the days ahead. I glanced at it, but in my groggy state, didn’t particularly take note of its contents. “Get plenty of rest.” The ER doctor said and no exercise until three days after all symptoms have cleared. Phew, so I could still go to my pilates class in four days time.
That evening, I posted about my accident on Instagram (as you do), and then watched the movie Red Sparrow. Hello, Jennifer Lawrence!
About mid-morning the next day (after waking up and feeling pretty good initially), the room started spinning. Out of control. You know the feeling when you’ve had too much to drink? Like that, but without the initial fun part. It took forever to settle, and then every time I moved my head, the spinning returned. Back to the ER, more spinning, some vomiting, and more panicking because surely, this isn’t normal?
Turns out that little piece of paper the doc gave me was pretty darn important. Aside from the obvious rest which was prescribed, “no phones and no TV” were imprinted in bold.
BTC (before the crash) I knew very little about concussion and its recovery, nor does the rest of the world it seems, because after much researching, apparently I’m not the only one who is pretty unaware of the dangers of head injuries and the recovery protocol. Unless you’re a Springbok rugby player who has a team of doctors analysing your every move, emotion and symptom, that is.
Dr. Ntethelelo Mjoli, the Chief Registrar of the Division of Neurosurgery at Groote Schuur Hospital agrees, “Concussion receives very little attention in spite of a book and a movie on the topic.” So here’s what I discovered about concussion, and how to get back on your feet, safely.
What Is A Concussion?
According to clinical neuropsychologist Alicia Sufrinko, a concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury (or TBI) caused by a direct or indirect hit to your head or body. When your head takes a hit, your brain gets jerked around inside your skull, causing damage to your brain cells. “Every person’s brain is different, sometimes big hits don’t result in concussions, but smaller ones do, which is why even a small fall or a seemingly harmless bump should be taken seriously.”
Symptoms of Concussion
According to Sufrinko, the symptoms of concussions fall under four categories: physical, cognitive, emotional, and sleep.
Physical symptoms include:
- Tinnitus and hearing impairment
- Sensitivity to light and noise
Cognitive symptoms include:
- Poor attention span
- Loss of consciousness
Emotional symptoms include:
People have even recorded complete personality changes after suffering a concussion!
Sleep-related symptoms include either battling to wake up, sleeping a lot more than normal or insomnia.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, you should get yourself checked out by a professional. In my case, it was pretty clear I needed to go the ER because I couldn’t remember what had happened and I was confused and wailing like a banshee. But sometimes, it’s not as clear-cut as that.
What About Concussion Recovery Protocol?
And then you also run the risk of suffering a second-impact syndrome which is when you suffer a second concussion without having recovered properly from the first.
According to Suffrinko, “Appropriate management of injury is linked to better outcomes in the weeks and months immediately following concussion”. Riding through a concussion and not taking enough time off is linked to further injury and a longer recovery. And then you also run the risk of suffering a second-impact syndrome which is when you suffer a second concussion without having recovered properly from the first. This could result in brain swelling, permanent brain damage, or even death.
According to my ER doctors, and pretty much any article on concussion on the internet, the most important thing to do is rest, rest, rest. Just like you rest an injured ankle, arm or knee, your brain needs rest. This gives it time to heal. So yes, that means no screens or TV-time. It turns out the dizziness 24 hours later is normal. And the fact that I was uploading and scrolling through the ‘Gram and watching TV could most definitely have brought it on. What I should have been doing was sleeping. Which is exactly what I did for the rest of the weekend.
What I also didn’t realise was how long it would take to recover fully. For the first week I suffered from severe vertigo and battled at work with concentrating, which I was (kind of) expecting. But it’s been six weeks since the accident and not only am I still getting the odd headache, but I feel dizzy when I roll over in bed at night, I still battle looking up (a struggle when trying to see what time the next bus is due to arrive), and I am beginning to think I am going to be left with permanent ringing in my ears.
I still have no clue what happened, and according to the doc at the ER, I am unlikely to ever get that memory back.
So that pilates class (and definitely the next ride) is on hold for the foreseeable future. However, new research has indicated that light aerobic exercise is linked to faster recovery, so I have started spinning classes. Fortunately for me, the vertigo, tinnitus and to a lesser extent, the headaches have been the only major symptom. (My personality has remained largely intact.) I still have no clue what happened, and according to the doc at the ER, I am unlikely to ever get that memory back. It’s the brain’s way of protecting itself (and me) from reliving the trauma. After visiting the scene of the crime, we have deduced I probably hit a raised manhole cover and lost control of my bike.
How To Prevent A Concussion From Occurring In The First Place
Always wear a helmet! (I was wearing one and it is now sporting a crack the size of the San Andreas fault. Ok, not quite but I like to labour the point). I shudder to think what could have happened had I not been wearing one.
That’s the obvious one if you’re a cyclist, but other than that it’s pretty hard to actually prevent hitting your head because it usually occurs in some type of accident which you can hardly prepare for. But common sense applies; always wear a seat belt, hold the handrail when climbing stairs, be cautious when walking under low-hanging branches, and be careful when doing story time on the bottom bunk (I speak from experience). And in contact sports, your coaches should train you how to brace for a hit.
I got off lightly, I realise that. I am currently on the hunt for a new helmet, and I am now armed with a headful (pun intended) of research on TBIs and what to expect should I ever sustain one again. God forbid. But mostly, what I have learned is to recover after a head injury you need time and patience. In spades.
With thanks to bicycling.co.za for the additional research.