March is Brain Awareness Month. With summer sports just around the corner, I thought that it would be a very appropriate time to ask the doctors of High Mountain Brain and Spine to educate us on concussions. Dr. Claudio Feler and Dr. David Miller spoke at the Eagle County Senior Expo this past year and educated the audience on brain and spinal issues. We are fortunate to have these amazing resources in our valley considering the active outdoor lifestyles we live.
It’s not really a fashion statement, but it can absolutely add that final touch to an outfit as well as save your life. A helmet is one of the most important things you can put on before playing in the snow, on the river, in the dirt or climbing rocks. While helmets may not always prevent serious head injury, they do a great job limiting the severity of injury to our most important body part — our brain. Yet despite an increase in helmet use, doctors are seeing an increase in the number of concussions within their clinics, especially in active individuals and athletes.
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury; it’s defined as an alteration of consciousness as a result of trauma to the brain. With our active mountain lifestyles and the (sometimes) adrenalin-fueled decisions that accompany them, concussions are very common in our area. While most concussions only temporarily affect the brain, the effects of some can be lifelong and result in confusion and problems with memory, speech, vision or balance.
It’s not always easy to see that someone has sustained an injury resulting in a concussion. Of course, when a friend or teammate loses consciousness (gets knocked out) as a result of a head injury, we typically recognize the severity of the injury. Unfortunately, many people appear fine immediately after a traumatic brain injury, only to show symptoms later. This more common and potentially more dangerous scenario — when there is no loss of consciousness and the patient has only mild confusion — may have a severe impact on the brain and can be life threatening.
SYMPTOMS OF A CONCUSSION
Concussions leave a wide spectrum of symptoms; these symptoms are occasionally reported to be surprisingly severe with even some relatively mild concussions. The most common symptoms of concussion include headache, dizziness and difficulty remembering things. Some patients report trouble sleeping, concentrating and maintaining a stable emotional state. In some cases, personality changes affect the post-concussive patient.
There is no specific evaluation, test, or imaging modality to define a concussion or its expected time of recovery. The timeline for these symptoms to resolve is highly variable and hard to predict; symptoms typically last a few weeks but can last for years. No specific treatments or medications significantly change the recovery process, though some recent small studies show that light aerobic conditioning can expedite recovery. Time and rest are the keys to treatment. This prescription for recovery isn’t always welcomed by active people, but it truly is the best thing to do to ensure a good recovery.
SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION
If you think you or someone you know has suffered a concussion, it’s important to seek good medical guidance. Preliminary evaluations are typically provided by primary care physicians, neurologists, pediatricians and/or psychologists and psychiatrists. Recognizing that a patient has suffered a concussion is paramount to preventing a rare condition that is actually more common in teenagers and young adults, known as “second impact syndrome.” With this syndrome, a patient suffers a second head injury while symptomatic from an earlier injury.
This combination of one head injury superimposed on another soon after can cause significant swelling in the brain and commonly causes permanent brain injury; it can be fatal. Second impact syndrome is more common in teenagers and children as both groups are at higher risk for head injury as well as for multiple impacts to the head. For reasons that are not well understood, young brains seem to be biologically more susceptible to repeated traumas.
While the medical community has yet to firmly establish consensus regarding when a head injured patient is safe to return to activity, the universal recommendation of experts is that patients who have suffered a concussion should not return to any activity that has any risk of head injury until they are symptom free.
Miller and Feler may be reached by calling 970-384-6770.
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. For more information, go to www.visitingangels.com/comtns or call 970-328-5526.