More than 1.5 million Americans experience a traumatic brain injury each year, up to 75% of which are considered to be mild.1 Concussions are considered to be a form of mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) because they’re typically not life-threatening, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that concussions are often not mild, instead leading to serious symptoms and lasting changes in the brain.
A concussion occurs when a bump, blow or jolt to the head or body causes the head and brain to move back and forth rapidly. The jarring movement can stretch and damage brain cells while also leading to chemical changes in the brain.2
Because many people do not see a doctor following a concussion, their incidence may be much higher than estimated. In terms of sport-related MTBI, 1.6 million to 3.8 million cases may occur annually in the U.S, and 15% of people who experience MTBI may experience ongoing, debilitating effects.3
Most Concussions Result From Falls
High-profile cases may bring concussions into the media on occasion, including the 34 U.S. service members who suffered concussions and traumatic brain injuries following Iranian airstrikes on the Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq in January 2020.4
The National Football League (NFL) is another hot spot for concussion news, as it’s been revealed that retired NFL players may be at increased risk of developing dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative brain disease caused by repetitive brain trauma.5,6
Aaron Hernandez, a former player for the New England Patriots, was diagnosed with CTE after his death, caused by suicide while in prison for murder. Symptoms of CTE may include memory loss, impaired judgment, aggression, impulse control problems and dementia.
“There are approximately 0.41 concussions per NFL game of American football,” researchers wrote in Neurosurgery,7 making it an important source of concussions, but for most people outside of the NFL, falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury, accounting for 48% of cases.8
According to Dr. Dan Engle, board-certified in adult psychology and neurology, who has written an indispensable guide to recovering from traumatic brain injury, “The Concussion Repair Manual: A Practical Guide to Recovering From Traumatic Brain Injuries:”
“Most people, if they just hit their head on the door or cabinet, it’s not going to be enough to have a significant neurological sequela moving forward, but sometimes, it will. Oftentimes, the thing that happens in the home that will have negative long-term impacts is a fall.
If you slip on a rug or slip going down the stairs, there’s a significant momentum that jostles the brain inside the skull to what’s called a coup contrecoup injury, or back-and-forth kind of injury. That’s going to be noticeable.”
What Are the Symptoms of a Concussion?
Concussion symptoms vary widely and, contrary to popular belief, often occur even if you haven’t lost consciousness. Even simply “not feeling right” or feeling down after a blow to the head could signal a concussion, and other common symptoms, which can last for days, weeks or months, include:9
Unable to recall events prior to or after a hit or fall
Appears dazed or stunned
Forgets an instruction, is confused about an assignment or position, or is unsure of the game, score or opponent
Answers questions slowly
Loses consciousness (even briefly)
Shows mood, behavior, or personality changes
Headache or “pressure” in head
Nausea or vomiting
Balance problems or dizziness, or double or blurry vision
Bothered by light or noise
Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy or groggy
Confusion, or concentration or memory problem
Even after the initial symptoms go away, however, research by Maryse Lassonde, a neuropsychologist and scientific director of the Quebec Nature and Technologies Granting Agency, suggests the brain is still not 100% normal.
After studying the brains of hockey players who had received concussions, she found abnormal brain wave activity that persisted for years, along with partial wasting of motor pathways that could degrade attention.10 What’s more, according to the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control:11
“Many people with MTBI have difficulty returning to routine, daily activities and may be unable to return to work for many weeks or months. In addition to the human toll of these injuries, MTBI costs the nation nearly $ 17 billion each year. These data, however, likely underestimate the problem of MTBI in this country …”
Concussion Increases Risk of Parkinson’s Disease
If there were any doubt that a blow to the head leading to a concussion should be taken seriously, consider that research published in the journal Neurology found that even a single concussion could increase your risk for Parkinson’s, a degenerative brain disease.12 For the study, “concussion” was defined as loss of consciousness for up to 30 minutes or alteration of consciousness and/or amnesia for up to 24 hours.
Medical records of 325,870 U.S. military veterans ranging in age from 31 to 65 were evaluated in this retrospective cohort study, showing that a TBI resulting in loss of consciousness raised the risk of Parkinson’s by 56%. Again, this has implications for everyone, as concussions occur regularly outside of pro sports and the military.
Dr. Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco, departments of neurology, psychiatry, medicine, and epidemiology and biostatistics, was one of the study’s authors. She said in a news release, “While the participants had all served in the active military, many if not most of the traumatic brain injuries had been acquired during civilian life. As such, we believe it has important implications for the general population.”13
When to Seek Help for a Concussion
If you’ve experienced a concussion, whether it be due to a fall, automobile accident, sport or other cause, take care to self-reflect and watch for psychological and neurological changes. If the concussion occurred in a child, he or she will need to be carefully monitored by their parents for changes in behavior and function.
If you notice a change in your child or yourself within the days or weeks following a head injury, a more comprehensive medical evaluation and workup is strongly recommended to avoid long-term repercussions. In the interim, be sure to avoid any activities that could further injure your brain; children should not return to sports until the concussion is fully healed.
In the aftermath of a concussion, you’ll also want to get adequate sleep to help recharge your brain and avoid excessive physical activity, driving too soon and overstimulating your brain with work or school.
Even reading, playing video games and watching TV can be too strenuous, mentally, following a concussion. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, “Processing new information can be harder for anyone who is concussed. If you have work or studying to do, spread it out and take frequent breaks.”14 Some commonsense precautions to help avoid concussions include:15
• Always wear your seat belt when driving or riding in a car, and never drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
• Wear a helmet or appropriate headgear when:
◦ Riding a bicycle, motorcycle or any other motorized vehicle, including off-roading with an all-terrain vehicle
◦ Playing contact sports
◦ Skating or skateboarding
◦ Playing baseball or softball
◦ Horseback riding
◦ Skiing or snowboarding
• Safeguard the elderly in your home by:
◦ Removing tripping hazards such as throw rugs and clutter
◦ Using nonslip mats in bathtub and shower
◦ Installing grab bars next to your toilet, tub and shower, and handrails along both sides of stairways
◦ Improving lighting
◦ Maintaining a regular physical activity program to maintain or improve strength and balance
• Safeguard children in your home by:
◦ Installing window guards
◦ Using safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs
◦ Using nonskid bathmats and nonslip mats in tub and shower
◦ Never leaving your child unattended in a highchair
• Make sure your child’s playground has shock-absorbing material such as hardwood mulch or sand in key areas where falls are likely to occur
How to Repair a Concussion
There are steps you can take to optimize brain function and help repair neurological function in case of injury like a concussion. During the acute phase, if you have a significant concussion, Engle recommends paying attention to lifestyle management, including getting quiet and using flotation therapy. During flotation therapy, you experience sensory deprivation, which has immense healing potential. In my article on this topic, Engle states:
“When somebody drops into a float tank experience or a sensory deprivation experience, it’s essentially the first time since they were conceived that they’re without environmental stimuli … Eighty percent of what the brain is consistently bringing in is environmental stimuli. Now, there’s more energy toward the recuperative mechanisms.
It’s both a brain technology and a consciousness technology, because … [the] flotation tank [experience] is like meditation on steroids. If somebody’s using it [for] recuperative and regenerative [purposes], they may well find more peace in their lives outside of the tank as well … because it starts to reset the neuroendocrine system.
Cortisol levels normalize. Global inflammatory markers normalize. Blood pressure normalizes. The relationship between the brain and the endocrine or the hormonal systems starts to optimize …”
Next, he states, take omega-3 fats, cannabidiol (CBD) oil, vitamin D and melatonin, particularly if there are issues with sleep. According to Engle, CBD may be a potent stimulator of nuclear factor-like 2 (Nrf2) pathway, which stimulates the hermetic production of antioxidants in your body.16
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may also help. By saturating your tissues with oxygen, the oxygen is able to get into all of the neuroreparative mechanisms in your entire neurologic system from head to toe. It accelerates all wound repair processes, be it in peripheral vasculature or in central vasculature, around the nervous system, brain and spinal cord.
Photobiomodulation, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, transcranial direct current stimulation and neurofeedback are other remedies recommended by Engle, but for more information, if you’ve had a concussion or know someone who does, be sure to pick up a copy of “The Concussion Repair Manual.” You can also download a free Concussion Repair Checklist to help you recover at ConcussionRepairChecklist.com.