THE VAULT: Long-Term Effects of Brain Injuries 

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Brain Injuries and hockey have gone hand-in-hand from the early stages of the game. As the players and game have evolved, the protection and awareness of the dangers has become as important as the game itself.

In 1993 I was involved in a car accident that changed everything about my life. The way I think, speak, see, walk, and even react to seemingly everyday situations.

Twenty-eight years later, I sometimes struggle to find the right words in my speech, and often cannot get the words to come out, causing a stammer. Headaches are something I struggle to manage. I can feel one coming on for a day, than suffer through a daze to try and clear them. The mood swings that come with the headaches are legendary. How my family is able to put up with me is beyond comprehension.  I have not been able to climb a ladder or stand on a stool without going through nausea for decades and have failed field sobriety tests without having a single drink in weeks.

There were other concussions prior to the accident. I learned later in life that each is compounded and the symptoms can worsen over time. One of my cousins accidentally clobbered me with a baseball bat; I was hit by a car while riding a bicycle, and once got shoved into the flag pole by an overzealous defensive back while running full speed down the makeshift sideline in a lunchtime touch football game. Then there are the hockey concussions, the smelling salts, and laughter. The last three also turned the lights off and I awoke in the hospital.

After the car accident, I awoke with the loss of feeling over the entire right side of my body from the neck down. I’d try to stand up, and fall right down. As the brain swelling reduced, the effect diminished.  My doctor said it best after complaining about some of the issues I was continuing to deal with. “You are lucky to be alive, but some things will never be the same again.”

The seriousness of head injuries and concussions are only recently becoming more understood. Research now shows that the effects often last a lifetime.

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury caused by a rapid movement or blow to the head. The concussions’ long lasting effects have many medical professionals alarmed.

Post-concussion syndrome (PCS) is a set of disorders with symptoms that last for weeks, months, and years. The force accompanying the concussion event can tear, displace, or crush delicate brain tissue, causing the PCS symptoms to last until healed, or forever if the damage is permanent.

While any of the PCS symptoms could last indefinitely, even with proper treatment, brain injuries can also lead to long-term problems such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.

Psychological symptoms, which are present in about half of people with PCS, often include irritability, anxiety, depression and a change of personality. Other emotional and behavioral symptoms are restlessness, aggression, mood swings, anger, impulsiveness, and a lack of ability to tolerate stress.

Other physical symptoms include a sensitivity to light, slight decrease of the senses of taste and smell, along with blurred vision. Insomnia is also very common.

Another major concern should be the long-term side-effects of over-the counter pain medication.

My go-to pain relief choice was Ibuprofen.  Folks, read the fine print on the bottle. I did not and had a nine-month war with kidney cancer as a result.  The cancer is gone but I’m still dealing with the consequences of the fight, and my unintentional abuse of the product.

During a recent hospital stay, I spent a few hours with a Neurosurgeon talking about head injuries, concussions, and PCS. We agreed that education is the most important aspect of the problem. One key point that he made actually makes a lot of sense. Accidents happen in all aspects of life, and the benefits of athletics far outweigh the risk of concussions and head injuries. He applauded the efforts of science to improve protection in the game of hockey, but still has a difficult time with the sport allowing fights to continue.    

I also asked him about my own experience with the after effects of the injury and what was said helped ease my own concerns. Now only if I can get him to explain it to my family.

There are a few products on the market that I feel are designed with protection in mind before profitability.

The physical aspects and speed of hockey directly enhance the popularity of the game. One of the by-products is the real risk of brain injuries. Protective advancements and better awareness will help eliminate much of that risk. As a sport, we are also doing a much better job of properly treating our players when such an injury occurs.

Charging and elbowing calls also need to be made. Enforcing the rules already in the book will go further than creating new ones.

The bottom line is sensibility. There is no such thing as just getting the bell rung. Take every brain injury seriously and consider all the consequences of a hasty return. I’d hate for any of you to have to deal with the repercussions in the same way my family has.