The Truth About Concussions

July 10th, 2018 Orthopedic Associates

Concussions have been in the news a lot over the past few years, which has made learning about them increasingly difficult. The truth about concussions is this: we don’t know everything. A lot of research is being done right now, and a lot of research that has been completed is inconclusive. Here’s what we know.

The Truth About Concussions

From football to professional wrestling, any athletic event is currently being plagued by concussion controversy. Sports doctors are abuzz with hypotheses about what concussions do in the long term, and how to prevent them. A few years ago, Will Smith even decided to join in on the topic with his aptly-titled film “Concussion.” A well-known injury, concussions are certainly making headlines. However, this can easily muddle the truth.

The unfortunate truth about concussions right now is this: we aren’t entirely sure what long-term effects they have. The knowledge that we thought we had is likely not true, and it’s going to take some time to make things clear. However, there are many leading thoughts on what, exactly, the truth about concussions might be. Sports medicine is an ever-expanding field, and concussions are the first thing that many want to tackle.

What are Concussions?

Before we get too far, it’s important that we discuss what concussions are. Concussions are a traumatic brain injury that impairs brain use significantly. They occur because of contusions on the brain after it makes an impact with your skull.

Your brain is surrounded by a fluid, which normally keeps it from touching the inside of your skull. However, a quick impact can shake your brain faster than the fluid can adjust. This can occur in many ways — a rough tackle, a high-speed car crash, and getting punched in the face are just a few. When this happens, the brain is cut and bruised. This is a concussion.

Early signs of a concussion are a headache and temporary loss of consciousness. Many people will appear “foggy” and act like they’re drunk after the incident. In the short term, you may experience dizzy spells and memory loss. Light sensitivity and sleep disturbances are also common. Sometimes symptoms will appear immediately, while others might takes days to manifest. Treatment for a concussion should always be sought within the first 24 hours, but it’s normally best to assume that a concussion is an emergency.

The major treatment for a concussion is rest, but that rest should be supervised. For a long time, people have been warning each other to not sleep with a concussion. “You might not wake up,” is the common response. The truth is that this is not entirely true. Sleeping after a concussion is actually good for the injury, but concussion symptoms sometimes mask a more severe injury (like a hemorrhage.)

The Long-Term Effects of Concussions

Until recently, concussions and other traumatic brain injuries were thought to have no long-term side effects. This doesn’t quite add up, though. It’s common knowledge that traumatic injury elsewhere is likely to have a long-lasting impact. However, it’s difficult to prove that the long-term side effects of a brain injury are actually caused by a brain injury.

Currently, research is being done into the link between repeated concussions and CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. As the name would imply, CTE is caused by regular traumatic injury to the brain or head. Found mostly in athletes and military veterans, CTE causes the brain to degenerate. Symptoms begin to develop in a person’s late 20s to early 30s, mostly in the form of mood disorders. Patients become irrationally angry, depressed, or manic. Later in the development of CTE, patients might find themselves developing memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and dementia.

There is currently no conclusive evidence linking CTE to concussions. While there is a clear correlation, there is no sign of causation. In fact, many top researchers suspect that CTE is the result of a perfect cocktail of brain damage. Recent studies suggest that a patient will develop CTE only if they frequently use alcohol, painkillers, or hard drugs, and also suffer repeated traumatic brain injury. Unfortunately, only recently has the average person at risk for CTE also been free of those demons.

Until conclusive evidence can be drawn, though, it’s reasonable to assume that concussions do lead to CTE. We know that repeatedly breaking your leg will cause issues with your gait. Why assume that our brains are not the same? What’s most unfortunate, though, is that we only know one way to prevent concussions right now: don’t get hit.

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