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Traumatic brain injury: the silent epidemic

Editors’ Note: Landin Murphy, 20, of Williamsville, suffered a traumatic brain injury during a basketball game in his freshman year of high school in December 2008. March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, and Landin chose to tell his story and share some things he has learned about brain injuries. He is a senior at St. Mary’s High School in Lancaster, continues to recover and is on track to graduate in June. He plans to study pre-med in college.

By Landin Murphy

NeXt Correspondent

The brain is an organ much more complex than most people realize. It is not only responsible for controlling the body’s limbs and movements, it gives the ability of thought and reason. Essentially everything in our bodies is directly linked to the brain. Digestion, muscle tone, heart rate, you name it. This is why traumatic brain injury, also known as a concussion, is such a pertinent issue.

Coupled with the brain’s importance, what makes TBI even more worrisome is that its occurrence sometimes can slip under the radar. Its symptoms can be confusing and seem unrelated. Furthermore, many athletes are taught from a young age to systematically ignore brain injuries. Frequent hits in football, soccer, basketball or other contact sports go unreported. These hits, stemming from physical contact between players or simply being knocked to the ground, are often referred to as “dings.” Players often are told to push forward, ignoring the idea that he or she has sustained a brain injury. The symptoms of a “ding” range from dizziness, nausea, blurred vision and more. These injuries should be treated with all seriousness.

Long-term studies have shown the accumulation of such ignored, smaller injuries to be more problematic than one or two more immediately serious injuries. Likewise, neglect of proper treatment increases the risk of developing much more serious health and brain conditions such as post Concussion Syndrome, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) or dementia.

Everyone needs to make an effort when it comes to learning more about TBI. The age groups most susceptible to sustaining brain injuries are the young and the elderly, consequently the two age groups most reliant on others. Unfortunately, these people are also the most adversely affected when brain injury is sustained.

Any injury sustained by a young brain can impair or adversely affect development. Similarly, a person with already declining physical assets (such as a person more advanced in years) will often find recovery to be longer and symptoms more severe.

My story

As a freshman in high school, I suffered a traumatic brain injury while playing junior varsity basketball for my school at that time. A teammate and I became tangled while sprinting after the ball, resulting in a blow to the face and a trip to the floor. Originally, my injury was thought to be minor, most likely to resolve itself in a matter of a week or two. However, this was not the case.

At the time of the incident, my coach did not recognize that I might have had a concussion. There was no trainer on site, and my loss of memory (due to being knocked unconscious) led to an ambiguous recollection of how the events had unfolded. Luckily, I had a cursory knowledge of what my symptoms might have meant, and I called my mother to take me to the emergency room.

Unfortunately, over the course of the next several weeks my condition was misdiagnosed and treated improperly. I was not correctly advised what to do in order to recover and several signs of more serious conditions slipped under the radar. As a result, despite early improvements, my health worsened over time. It has now taken a number of years – six to be precise – to slowly reverse the damage done from the original accident, but more importantly the extra complications due to improper treatment.

The aftermath

Following the incident, I experienced blurred vision and trouble focusing. I could still read and distinguish people’s faces and features – except there was a weird haze, some sort of fog surrounding whatever I turned my attention to. Also, my left leg wouldn’t stop moving. It would twitch perpetually, almost rhythmically. Furthermore, there was a severe stiffness in my neck that made it feel crooked, despite being held perfectly straight. Both of my pupils were dilated more than normal, but each at a different size. One of the most peculiar (and worrisome) symptoms was that of my numbness. Even though it felt as if I should be in some manner of pain, I didn’t truly feel much. The left side of my body (the same side with the leg twitch) was numb; it felt almost lifeless. This numbness made it difficult to describe many of the symptoms I was feeling. It also was a sign that my spinal cord had received some form of injury, but this went untreated for a long time.

What is a TBI?

Here’s what I have learned about TBI: Despite what some people may say, I believe a concussion and a traumatic brain injury are one and the same. There may not even be signs of injury on the face or skull of the recipient. Furthermore, a person does not have to hit his/her head on anything to sustain such an injury. The brain inside a person’s skull is not stationary. Therefore, a rapid acceleration and deceleration of one’s head can cause the brain to bounce off the inner walls of the skull. This jolt to the skull and brain can be the result of a direct blow (like a punch) or an indirect reaction due to a blow or impact on the body (like a car accident, where a person’s head does not hit anything, but moves back and forth violently). Essentially, these rapid motions can injure the brain, causing it to bruise or swell and impairing its normal function. This result is what is known as a concussion.

Signs of concussion

With what is now not a little experience regarding the matter of concussions, and having spoken to a number of internationally recognized experts, here is a sample list of symptoms that could mean you or someone you care for has sustained a concussion.

• Physical: Dizziness, nausea, vomiting, problems with balance, fatigue, light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, numbness/tingling, vision loss or disturbances, headache, feelings of confusion, disorientation.

• Cognitive: Feelings of fogginess, slower reaction time, repeating questions or answers, trouble with concentration or memory, memory loss or amnesia.

• Emotional: Irritability, sadness, less or overemotional, nervousness.

• Sleep: Drowsiness, sleeping more or less than usual, trouble falling asleep, odd sleep patterns (i.e., sleeping during the day, awake during the night).

What to do

If you or someone you care for is concerned he/she might have sustained a concussion, immediately contact a medical professional. The sooner a doctor or trainer can examine the patient and symptoms, the easier it is to diagnose and understand what is going on.

After diagnosis

Most traumatic brain injuries are not severe. However, they still should be treated with all seriousness. Even a few days of neglect or ignoring one’s symptoms can lead to added weeks of recovery time. Be sure to listen to your body.

After diagnosis, be sure to avoid television, computers and other bright devices that might overstimulate the brain. If you become light sensitive, try wearing sunglasses (inside and outside if necessary). Make sure not to concentrate on work or schoolwork (depending on your age), which can overtax the brain and stall or reverse the healing process. Possibly the most important aspect of recovery is rest. Make sure to get ample sleep. Most people who have sustained a TBI need much more sleep than normal. Do whatever it takes to get your health or that of someone you care about back to 100 percent before returning to normal activities.

My future

As for my recovery, I am steadily, although slowly, making progress. Gradually my “team” of medical professionals is helping reintroduce more exercise, schoolwork and normal daily activities back into my life. I lift weights at least once a day and regularly go for long walks or cardiovascular sessions to raise my heart rate. Sometime in the near future I will be fully recovered, and it will be glorious. People don’t truly appreciate what a blessing good health is until it’s snatched away.

Landin Murphy is a senior at St. Mary’s High School.