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Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About Concussion

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If you watch any medical drama on TV for more than five minutes, it seems, someone is going to show up with a concussion. It’s a word we hear a lot in the media, especially connected with football and other sports, and you or a loved one may have even had a personal experience. Yet concussions are often misunderstood—sometimes to the point of being life-threatening.

Simply stated, a concussion is a chemical change in the brain that affects the body’s neurological function. Typically, it starts with some sort of trauma to the head: a fall on the stairs, two football players knocking heads, striking your head on the steering wheel during a car accident, and so forth.

There are many symptoms that can indicate concussion, ranging from mild to severe. Studies have shown that the true severity of a concussion can’t always be accurately determined by the initial symptoms. Someone who has been knocked unconscious may have only a mild concussion, while someone who is just feeling dizzy may, in fact, have a severe concussion.

Some of the more common symptoms of concussion include headache, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), blurry vision, nausea, loss of consciousness, difficulty sleeping/change in sleep pattern, sensitivity to light, irritability and personality changes.

If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms after suffering a blow to the head, you need to seek medical attention immediately. Even if there aren’t any symptoms initially, be sure that someone monitors the person for the next several hours. If it happens near bedtime, wake the person up every four hours and ask them if they know what day it is or other simple questions to assess their cognitive (thinking) function.

This can be a challenge if you live alone and you hit your head in the evening. Even though it might feel like a hassle or an imposition, please do not go to sleep without having someone over to monitor you.

Even if there are no symptoms, yet you feel like to you need to go sooner rather than later to an ER, do so. It is always better to err on the side of caution.

One of the biggest misconceptions about concussion is that it can be diagnosed with an X-ray, CT scan or MRI. Remember, a concussion is a chemical change in the brain. These diagnostic tests look for changes in the anatomy of the brain. So while they can reveal a fracture, blood around the brain and so forth, they cannot determine whether or not a concussion has occurred. Other tests are needed to accurately diagnose concussion.

The best way by far to diagnose a concussion is to start with baseline testing of such factors as balance, memory and cognitive skills before a concussion occurs. While most of us won’t have occasion to undergo baseline testing, there is a particular group of people who are at higher risk of concussion and, therefore, can particularly benefit from such testing: athletes. If there is a suspected concussion, medical professionals have this important baseline data to compare with the person’s current physical and mental status.

I have the privilege, along with local sports chiropractor David Sommer, to conduct a sports concussion clinic—sponsored by Simi Valley Hospital—that has served athletes from Simi Valley High School and Royal High School in such sports as football, soccer, lacrosse and wrestling. We do this baseline testing, and it is invaluable in helping our young people who are injured on the field.

An accurate diagnosis is critical to ensuring that a concussion is detected before the athlete engages in any additional activity. This helps us avoid second-impact syndrome, a potentially deadly condition that occurs when the brain is reinjured before the first concussion has completely healed.

The treatment for concussion is simple—yet often challenging for the patient: physical and mental rest. That means no Facebook, no PlayStation, no texting. It often means time off from school or work. Then, slowly, the patient can begin to add activity back into his or her life. With time, most people can get back to the sports, work, and other activity they enjoyed before the concussion.

Learn more about concussion symptoms, treatment, baseline testing and so forth at SportsConcussionClinic.com.

Gregg Hartman, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon with Ventura Orthopedic Medical Group in Simi Valley.