Friday, October 12, 2012

Concussions, and the Lessons Learned from Having Them

Over the last couple of days the issue of concussions re-emerged as a news topic in the form of athletes who continue to compete despite being injured.  An article by David Newton stated Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hadn't disclosed that he was feeling symptoms of a head injury because he wanted to try for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

And from yesterday's article by Marc Sessler, it seems Calvin Johnson recently hid head trauma as well.  Sessler quoted Johnson: "'He rung my bell pretty good, he got me, he caught me around the chin, that was a good hit,' Johnson told WXYT-FM in Detroit. 'It's part of football, you get concussed, you gotta keep on playing.  You can't get afraid to go across the middle any more than you were at the beginning.'"  

Later in the article, Sessler writes, "Johnson later admitted to reporters Thursday that he believed he had suffered a concussion," though doesn't indicate whether Johnson thought that during that game or after it.

Playing after suffering head trauma isn't a good idea.  I can say this with confidence because my own experiences told me so.

In September 2010, my senior year at McDaniel College, I suffered the second concussion of my football career while running down the practice field on a kickoff.  After spending a few days continuing to participate in football activities (if memory serves me correctly, my line of thinking was that I would get better during the easier practice days), I went to the athletic trainer.

But I was never one to like standing on the sideline.  More than anything else, I think it was my obsessive "never take a day off even if you want to" mentality that wouldn't let me stay out more than a couple of days.  So after just two missed practices, I told the trainer I felt okay, even though I didn't, and started practicing again.  

It was all well and good until I got sandwiched between two of my teammates during a drill about five days later.  If memory serves me correctly, I immediately felt nauseous following the hit, and watching a YouTube video in the computer lab later that night made me feel tired, made me feel like I was going to vomit, and made me feel like my head was going to explode.  

That second hit effectively ended my football career about six weeks early.  I tried to practice again later in the season, only to get pulled out by the athletic trainer once he realized I was still feeling concussion symptoms.  I thought about trying for another season of eligibility, but scrapped the idea in part because it made no sense from a journalism career standpoint.

Unfortunately, calling the head football coach in early January 2011 to say that I wasn't going to play football anymore didn't end the concussion.  When I returned to McDaniel for the Spring 2011 semester, I was still sensitive to light among other things, so looking at a computer screen for too long was out of the question.  That meant I wrote out all my papers by hand before typing them up.  

In April 2011, I tried to participate in a half-credit weightlifting class, but blood flow isn't good for concussions, and pumping iron brought back the dizziness and nausea that had previously subsided.

Fast forward to October 2012 and though the most intense symptoms are now a memory, my right ear is actually still ringing, though that symptom went away for a short time before returning following a late night computer-using session a few weeks ago.  

So what are the lessons to be learned here?  To Mr. Johnson, Mr. Earnhardt, and all other athletes out there who think they're tough enough to play with a concussion: Be honest about what you're feeling.  There are certain injuries you just shouldn't play with, and concussions are one of them.  Play the what-if game for just a minute and imagine if I'd lied about the injury during my freshman year instead.  I'd have ended my football career a few years early as opposed to six weeks.  

Play another what-if game: I probably could have killed myself by continuing to play with a concussion.  

Competing for the rest of the game, or the rest of the season, isn't worth the risk of ending your career, or, in extreme cases, your life.  Take it from someone who ended his sports career six weeks early and could have had it much worse.

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