Below is an interview conducted by John Gonoude with Christopher Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute. The two met in Oaks, Pennsylvania to discuss head injuries in sports, in support of Gonoude’s Project Brain Wave.
What is a concussion?
A concussion is clinically considered an alteration in mental status, brought on by a blow to the head or forces transmitted to the brain. It is thought not to be a physical injury, but more of what they call a neurometabolic cascade that causes a temporary loss of function.
Why should they be taken seriously?
Well, concussions should be taken seriously because they are a mild traumatic brain injury that has serious repercussions. What doctors have found is that there is a window of vulnerability after a concussion, where you are much more susceptible to further damage if you stress your brain by either getting another blow to the head or exercising, and now they even think just thinking too much, cognitive stress, will cause what would be a mild injury to be much worse, causing longer symptoms and could lead to long-term problems.
What should parents and coaches understand about concussions?
First and foremost, every parent and coach needs to understand the signs and symptoms of a concussion. They need to know what to look for in an athlete to understand when to have it diagnosed properly. Now that could be looking for signs of dizziness, confusion, or if the athlete gets a headache after a blow to the head, or if they have vision issues, and part of that problem is that they have to educate the athlete to know when to speak up. And then on the other side they need to know proper management is rest, and that the athlete should no longer be put back into the same game after a concussion. At least be out a few days, potentially a few weeks, or a few months. Every injury is different. There may be long-term complications and effects from multiple head injuries, and parents need to pay attention to how many concussions their athletes have had.
What advice would you give someone with a concussion?
For an athlete with a concussion, I would advise that they take it easy. We understand that they want to rush back as soon as possible to their sport; we all do, with every injury. It’s the pride that we want to overcome a physical injury, but your brain doesn’t work the way the rest of your body does. If you sprain an ankle, you feel that pain. You know whether or not you can perform and you also know whether or not you’re like to make it much worse. With your brain, you don’t have the same pain nerves there, so you can’t feel pain for your brain, and so you don’t have the same feedback system and you try and push through it. And you probably can, but you don’t realize that you’re doing really bad damage to your brain.
How can you prevent yourself from being further injured, risking conditions such as Second Impact Syndrome?
To prevent further injury like Second Impact Syndrome, you’re talking about physical rest and you’re talking about cognitive rest. You’re talking about not getting stressed out about the fact that you have a concussion. Accept it, take a break. Take it easy, go home, and take a lot of naps and wait till your symptoms go away. Never ever go back to play or really even full anything until your symptoms have gone away.
What are some recent research breakthroughs that have been found regarding concussions?
There’s a lot of concern about what the long-term effects of repetitive head injuries are which means multiple concussions, or it could just mean the hundreds of thousands of kids that have been taken out from sports every year. At our center at Boston University, we actually get the brains of athletes when they die and we actually see physical damage, a degenerative disease in their brain, caused by this trauma. It’s a bit like Alzheimer’s. It has some effects like Alzheimer’s but the average onset is in their forties. So guys that have never taken care of their brain are having their lives destroyed and are dying in their forties and fifties from this disease. It’s supported by a survey that was done of a thousand ex-NFL players, and we found that from the age group of thirty to forty-nine, the risk of them having Alzheimer’s disease or any other memory-related disorders was nineteen times more than the normal population, which is mind-blowing to all the researchers involved. Basically, what we are seeing in their brains, we believe that this is the case; that if you, for twenty years, go out and whack your head a thousand times a year and don’t pay attention to the concussions you get, you are very likely to end up with this disease. We need to take a step back and start taking care of ourselves.