The serious impact of concussions

By Andrea Llewellyn

During my time as a wrestler, I have made a lot of mistakes, but have learned to listen to my body and ask for help.

In 2006, I suffered a concussion while wrestling for the University of Calgary Dinos wrestling team. At first my only symptoms were confusion and trouble focusing my eyes. Concussions had always seemed to me to be fairly minor, so I wasn’t too concerned.

My symptoms quickly worsened over the following days — I had difficulty reading and concentrating, had headaches, fatigue and trouble sleeping. I was unsure what my body was telling me. I tried to hide it and attended wrestling practice again.

Unfortunately, my experience with concussions is not unique. The Sport Information Resource Centre estimates there are 110 concussions per 100,000 Canadians a year.

Signs and symptoms of a concussion may be difficult to determine, especially since they often appear many days after the trauma.

Alberta Health Services defines a concussion as “an injury to the brain which occurs when the brain moves or twists and hits the inside of the skull. Concussions cause a change in how the brain functions rather than to the brain’s structure. For this reason, doctors usually diagnose a concussion from the history or injury to the head and the symptoms that follow it.”

Concussions are often difficult to assess by non-health professionals — individuals who are not seen by a doctor increase their chances of permanent damage and risk death in rare cases. My concussion was a one-time accident that changed the course of my life.

Vanessa Vegter knows all too well how concussions can be life-changing. Vegter has had six concussions to date and, even after being careful in recent years, her worst one was a fluke accident. She said a lack of awareness surrounding concussions is concerning. A concussion can happen to anyone — whether they live a high-risk lifestyle, are a victim of violence or navigate Canada’s icy streets.

Vegter had two concussions while playing rugby. She has led an adventurous life and before her last two concussions, her doctor gave her a warning. He told Vegter that she has to stop hitting her head before permanent damage occurs.

Her latest concussion in May 2009 was unavoidable and her worst to date: “My friends and I were downtown and there was this guy on his bike jumping off stairs and all over the place. He ended up jumping the bike into my head and I had to get 10 stitches — I was completely knocked out and when I woke up I was in the ambulance.”

What Vegter finds disconcerting is the unknown. Have her concussions changed her? What will happen if she has another one? She comically adds, “maybe I’d be better at chemistry.”

Vegter adds sense of humour to a heavy subject, but she expresses regret about not seeing a doctor early enough.

“I just didn’t think it was a big deal,” she said. “I thought, ‘my head hurts, I can’t go to sleep, I am nauseated and I can’t see, but it all goes away.’ It was one of those things I didn’t take very seriously until my last [concussion]. I just became more serious about health — when you are young you really do think you are invincible.”

Vegter said she is lucky that more long-term consequences of the concussions haven’t arisen.

Jeremy Ballantine, who is involved in wrestling and mixed martial arts, has had eight concussions, the latest in 2002. Eight years later, doctors confirmed that he is suffering from post-concussion syndrome. The long-term effects include altered brain function, reduced memory recall, headaches from increased blood pressure, difficulty concentrating and fatigue.

Ballantine regrets a lot of the choices he made regarding his concussions, but he said his lack of knowledge about them limited his ability to make smart decisions about his health. Ballantine clashed heads in practice with a teammate and was knocked unconscious. He woke up two minutes later and no one had called an ambulance. Instead, he sat out the rest of practice, took two days off and wrestled the rest of the season with no other treatment. He had suffered a third degree concussion and later his symptoms led him to quit the sport, a decision that led his peers to question his choice.

“I think something people don’t understand is that when you have injuries like these, you are very wary of the control other people have and you shouldn’t put yourself in situations where you don’t trust the people around you.”

New research is bringing to light the seriousness of brain injuries. Charles Tator, a concussion and brain injury expert at the Toronto Western Hospital, found that one of the most important improvements in the treatment of concussions is educating the public and changing attitudes towards brain injuries.

In a Globe and Mail article, Dr. Tator said, “injury prevention in sports such as football and hockey require a large range of injury prevention measures including respect, education and rules enforcement.”

According to the Brain Injury Association of Canada, concussed individuals need to be in an environment that understands the seriousness of brain injuries and is supportive in helping that individual recover.

Today, six years after my concussion, I have realized I was too proud to seek adequate treatment and felt embarrassed and socially pressured to just ‘walk it off.’ I should have taken time off school and sought more medical help — I am still experiencing the effects of my poor decision-making. It is important to take care of your brain — it makes you who you are. According to the Brain Injury Association of Canada, 1 in 26 Canadians are living with a brain injury and 1 in 5 sports-related injuries are brain injuries.

“Respect your brain in sport,” said Dr. Tator. “And respect the brain of your opponent.”

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