Protecting Your Head
As we are slowly returning to normalcy from the lockdown during the summer, it is important to be cautious when out and about. I don’t say this in regards of social distancing, which undoubtedly reduces the spread of Covid-19, but with regards to sports and activities. Specifically, with regards to head injuries. We may be in a rush to head out and safely resume our summer activities that we may lose sight of safety from ailments other than the virus kind.
Most head injuries are due to falls and accidents. In fact, 80% of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in older adults are due to falls. In younger populations, the risk of falls is lower and the outcomes from falls are far better than older adults. However, in the younger population, head injuries can occur in other forms. Namely mild TBI, more commonly known as concussion. Lovers of American football may recall the furor over concussions in football. While Dr. Bennet Omalu was not the first to discover a set of symptoms that classify concussions, he essentially discovered the disease of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which plagued the NFL in the early 2000s. Since then, multiple studies have shown the link between repetitive low-level hits to the head and CTE symptoms and diagnosis. And this extends to soccer as well—a study published in the UK in a prominent journal indicated that soccer players in the UK were more likely to exhibit symptoms of cognitive decline (i.e. dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) later in life. These low-level hits to the head—either from a ball or from another player—may not amount to a diagnosed concussion, but repetitive hits can be debilitating. For instance, one former NFL player with CTE took thousands of hits to the head without being diagnosed with a single concussion in his playing career.
And that is the harrowing part of CTE. As kids, teenagers, adolescents, young adults, and adults go out to play this summer, they should be cognizant of protecting their head. Whether it is riding a bicycle or playing football (American or non-American), these individuals should take proper precautions. Luckily, the proper precautions may mean to simply put on a helmet while riding a bike or playing football, or by taking less ‘headers’ when playing soccer, or by simply taking it easy when playing sports. Fortunately, if you do hit your head, you are not sentenced to rest in the dark, avoiding light and stimuli, as was common practice. Rest may just entail not partaking in physical activity for several days until concussion-like symptoms completely disappear.
The goal of this post is not to scare the youth from participating in activities—the adrenaline of competition, the camaraderie and cohesion of teammates, and the pure joy of sports are all essential to growth and development for all ages. Rather, the point of this post is to inform and encourage safe practices. Furthermore, the science of CTE and concussions is rapidly evolving. Pioneers in the field, such as Dr. Anne McKee of the CTE Center at Boston University, are helping us better understand all forms of brain trauma. Lastly, I would be remiss if I don’t mention that hitting your hit, either once or repetitively, or by actually suffering diagnosed concussions, will certainly mean you have CTE. We may suffer bumps and bruises but we are not doomed to have CTE. In fact, no living person has been diagnosed with CTE. This is because CTE is only diagnosable via autopsy. Simply put, your brain is your most vital organ as it is responsible for the functioning of everything; hence it will behoove you to protect your head.
For more information of concussions and concussion diagnosis, here are some valuable resources:
Bilal Khokhar, PhD, MS, MA
Partnership for a Safer Maryland