April 26, 2015: I was 20 years old and playing with my college’s Ultimate Frisbee team when I dove to catch a disc. Another girl fell on me as my forehead whacked into the dried-up grass. I didn’t black out or vomit; I just had some short-lived forehead pain. On the ride back to school, I even wrote a paper for class. Unbeknownst to me, on that day, I became one of the 1.6 to 3.6 million people per year that suffer sports-related concussions in the United States. 1
When I awoke the morning after, I knew something was wrong. I thought that I was in for a week, maybe two, of headaches, discomfort, and slowed cognitive function. At that point, I didn’t know any better. And the first two healthcare professionals I sought out didn’t know any better either.
What is a Concussion?
A concussion is a complicated mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) that bruises the brain, usually following a blow to the head. Concussions can cause post-concussion syndrome, which is when the patient has new symptoms that persist for more than three months post injury.
Concussions are under-researched, somewhat unpredictable, and can uproot your life. For most, concussion symptoms go away within 10 to 14 days.1 Five to twenty percent of cases can have ongoing problems lasting months or years.1 Concussion-related problems can even start years after the initial injury.
I experienced a mix of immediate and delayed symptoms—many of which I ignored until they became too much to bear, leading me to resign from my first full-time job. It’s been two years since my concussion and I still struggle with post-concussion syndrome. My symptoms currently include or have included:
- headaches/daily migraines
- light and noise sensitivity
- trouble reading
- difficulty seeing at night
- postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome
- loss of coordination
- constant tinnitus
- ear pain and slight hearing loss
- numbness and tingling
- crying for no reason
- sleep disturbance/insomnia
- severe fatigue
- sensory overstimulation
- memory and word-finding deficits
- loss of abstract thinking ability
- concentration difficulties
- inability to multitask
- slowed cognitive processing
- acting without realizing it (i.e. sticking my keys in my pillowcase)
- vision problems
I still experience a majority of these symptoms, but less often than I used to. Those in bold indicate the most common late symptoms of a concussion.1 Of the above symptoms, I struggle most with chronic migraines, vision difficulties, and slowed cognition.
Migraines: In a typical month, I suffer 25-35 migraines that can last up to three days. So far, I have not been successful in finding a preventative or abortive migraine medicine that works. There are many days spent crying in pain in a dark room. Days where plans, like visiting my grandparents or attending my sister’s dance recital, are canceled. It often feels like my migraines control my life, but I try to push through it.
Vision: My eyes don’t like to work together, so I often run into doorways, cars, tables and other things when walking. My eyes also can’t focus while relaxed, so they’re always straining to work—causing eye pain, headaches, and blurred vision. This makes reading very difficult and painful.
Cognition: Tasks that used to take minutes or less now might take three times longer or more. This includes tasks such as responding to emails, reading a page in a book, or adding up a Yahtzee score. My foggy brain and difficulty finding words can leave me struggling to hold conversations or express my thoughts. Add in a migraine and attempting to write or talk can even become frustrating.
Personal, Monetary, and Emotional Repercussions
The repercussions are not just the documented symptoms I listed above. They can be monetary, emotional, and personal as well.
Monetary: The doctors’ appointments, scans, medicines, and therapies have cost thousands of dollars. Not to mention the money I’ve missed out on by not being able to work. These costs will only rise as my recovery continues.
Emotional: I go through periods of feeling inadequate, lazy, lost, anxious, and angry. It feels like I am stuck and wasting time as I fall behind my peers. I feel embarrassed that I’m a summa cum laude college graduate that physically and mentally cannot work full-time. I’m tired of prefacing every conversation about how I’m doing or what I’m up to with “I’m recovering from a concussion…from two years ago.” Sometimes, I feel it’s the only way to prevent people from labeling me lazy or a failure. Even when I do mention my concussion, it’s hard getting people to understand the situation.
Social: I’ve lost many friendships. They’re hard to maintain when you feel like a burden, can’t play sports or go to concerts, forget to respond to texts, and fear making plans because your health is unpredictable. Every time I’m asked to do something, it’s not a matter of whether or not I’m free or want to; it’s a matter of whether or not my head can handle it.
I’ve also lost a lot of memories. I don’t remember my college graduation, much about my first job, my recent birthdays, and numerous day-to-day memories. In the short term sense, I struggle to remember conversations I’ve just had or instructions I’ve just been given. This can make conversations frustrating and takes a toll on my personal relationships.
Not a Minor Incident
A concussion is not a minor incident. A minor incident does not leave you screaming in pain while your head feels like it’s being ripped apart. It doesn’t force you to resign from your first job and move back home. It doesn’t bring your college-graduate reading level down to that of an 11-year-old. It doesn’t take away your memories. It doesn’t take away your license for months because you might pass out at the wheel. It doesn’t make you lose your sense of self. It doesn’t warrant 53 doctor’s appointments and 79 visits for speech, occupational, physical, and vision therapy combined. It doesn’t affect your daily life two years after it happens.
A minor incident does not cause those repercussions.
A concussion does.
Reaching a point of acceptance for what this injury has done to my life still feels impossible. But, I at least hope that my story will inspire parents, health care professionals, coaches, athletes, and others to take concussions more seriously.
If you think your child, student, or athlete may have a concussion, get them to a medical professional. The NFL and movies might play them off as minor incidents, but concussions need to be taken seriously.
If you suffered a concussion and still suffer from headaches, mood disorder, balance problems, vision difficulties, or problems learning, it’s not too late. Go see your doctor and start the therapies you need to get well.
Know someone with a concussion? Readjust your expectations of them and try to understand what they’re going through. Trying to meet others’ expectations of your old self is one of the most stressful parts of this type of injury.
Read more on what to do by visiting the Center for Disease Control online.
1. Giza, C. C. (2014). Pediatric Issues in Sports Concussions. CONTINUUM: Lifelong Learning in Neurology, 20, 1570-1587. doi:10.1212/01.con.0000458973.71142.7d
Sarah is a 22-year-old freelance writer from Zionsville, PA. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in public relations from Messiah College in Grantham, PA. Reach out to her if you have any questions or would like to learn more about her story.