It’s August and pocket folders are 10 cents apiece everywhere. Yes, it’s time to start the back to school shuffle. In addition to school supplies and new clothes, the season also signals sports team sign-ups.
Like most boys and some girls, when my son was in middle school, he wanted to play football desperately. I wouldn’t let him. At the time – this was around the turn of the millennium – there wasn’t much talk about concussion. I just had a gut feeling that the sport was too rough. I wouldn’t let him play club football, but I did let him try out for the middle school team. It was fun for him, even though he spent most of the season on the bench. He didn’t go out for the sport again.
Whew. I made it. But these days I believe the demands on parents are greater and there is lots of talk about concussion. So what’s a parent to do?
There is a lot of information out there about watching for symptoms, but not an awful lot about why. This is unfortunate but understandable. As a person with brain injury, I want to tell you a little more about the “why.” Having a brain injury affects your future. Having a brain injury means you will live a life that is a little or a lot less than it might have been.
But the brain is a soft and squishy ball of cells. It is encased in tough membranes and a hard skull. However, no encasement, even one that is enhanced with a helmet, is safe when it is struck by a blunt force or, worse, penetrated by a foreign object like a bullet or a brick. The squishy ball of 100,000 billion cells, connected to one another by their long axon tails, butts up against the hard skull or foreign object and axons are stretched, twisted, or pulled apart. The blood vessels that otherwise bring nourishment to the brain also break and blood floods into spaces, further pushing against cells.
There are a lot of cells and it’s usually not going to matter if you lose a couple of dozen or even a hundred. But the number that are injured and the function of the injured cells is what matters. Will the loss of cells affect your sight or hearing or motor skills? Will muscles become spastic or will sensations like temperature control be affected? Will connectivity between cells be lost and thinking processes slow down? Some cells heal and things go back to normal. Other cell damage is permanent and physical and thinking skills are diminished forever.
And it’s more than the cells. It’s the chemicals that make them work. This is the first thing you need to know if you and your child decide to put his physical and mental skills and his personality and future at risk. Right after the brain is injury, the many neurochemicals that flow around the brain are fooled into reacting abnormally. It’s called a neurochemical cascade. The neurochemicals are going crazy trying to figure out what has happened and trying to reach a new state of calm. This cascade of neurochemicals continues to be disturbed, and thus be expressed outwardly in a person as confusion, working memory problems, depression and more. The neurochemical cascade lasts for a week or so. Depending on how hard the hit, some neurochemicals remain out of balance for much longer, even a lifetime. Lack of energy, lack of coordination, lack of patience. Too much sensitivity to light and noise, too much muscle tension, too much impulsivity. Slower thinking.
If you sign your kid up for sports and he hits his head, make sure he stays out of sports for a couple of weeks. Hitting his head again during this sensitive time could cause more damage to the brain’s awesome machinery.
Finally, parents and children who play sports need to realize the cumulative nature of injury to the brain. It builds over time and result in tangles of fiber that inhibit thinking processes. It becomes a disease process.
The three important points that I’ve watered down for you here are explained in great detail in a peer-reviewed journal article. The science is daunting and astounding. There is so much that is known and that is yet to be known, so the decision is not a simple one. Just know that every hit is important. Use care and an abundance of caution. Do what you can to ensure that children grow up with as intact a brain as possible so they can enjoy life and follow their dreams.