National Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Month in March provides an opportunity to discuss this important and evolving area of medicine. In the past, coaches told athletes to shake off a blow to the head. Football coaches would call it a bellringing, and boxers would jokingly say their peers who acted funny as a result of repeated hits to the head suffered from punch-drunk syndrome. But it’s not just football and boxing’ it’s hockey, wrestling, baseball, basketball, soccer, track and field, gymnastics and cheerleading. And it’s not just professionals, college and high school athletes’ it’s teens and even younger.
By now everyone should know this is no joking matter — a head injury can lead to a lifetime of complications. But how do we avoid or minimize these injuries?
Step 1: Avoidance
Although ideal, the reality is that avoidance is not possible unless we are going to remove ourselves and our children from common athletic and other activities. We encourage our children to stay active, to play football, soccer, gymnastics, and any other sport but to do so safely. We use helmets when we bike, ski and sled, but we recognize that it is still important to take part in these enjoyable activities. Wearing the right head gear can help reduce the risk of a serious injury. If a coach is teaching a child an improper or otherwise dangerous technique, it is important to pull your child if the coach is dismissive of your concern. But just as an injury can happen on the field of play it can happen on the way to or from the field in a car accident.
Step 2: Minimizing the impact
The first thing one must do is avoid another trauma while you or your loved one heals. Immediately upon a head impact, the individual needs to be properly assessed, and the necessary time away from exercise must be taken for the brain to heal. This may be an expensive process, as top institutions, like the Mayo Clinic have assembled rehabilitative teams that can include neurologists, occupational therapists, speech and language specialists, and neuropsychologists, as well as a rehabilitation nurse and/or case manager to organize the needed care.
With the need for all of these interventions, it is not a surprise that research from Northwestern estimates treatment for brain injuries can cost anywhere from $85,000 to $3 million.
National organizations like the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) working with the Centers for Disease Control and other bodies have developed programs to educate coaches, players, and parents to recognize the importance of Concussion Protocols. If your school or team doesn’t take advantage of their resources, be the parent who pressures them to do so (versus adopting the old “just-suck-it-up-and-get-back-in-there stance).
Step 3: Making those who cause these injuries take responsibility
Whether the injury was sustained in a car accident or on the field of play, if the someone’s negligence has led to a life altering injury to you or your loved one, make sure the resources needed for the best recovery are obtained. Getting to a better place may not only require the previously mentioned medical personnel, it may also mean litigation. Regardless of the path, a support group can help provide coping strategies and emotional support to better ensure a successful transition back to your life.