The hits. The shuffling low sounds of players tackling one another, the click-clacking of pads against pads, and once in a great while, the sharp bang that cuts through the autumn air like a rifle’s report when two helmets collide.
It’s a contact sport, football. The players—strong, fast and big—swarm to the ball and to each other like angry bulls. Soft cushioning and hard armor help to soften and absorb the hits, but bruises, sprains and breaks do occasionally occur.
Those injuries are easy enough to deal with, at least from the perspective of a physician or team trainer. There is a protocol in place of wraps, or casts or ointments and a pretty good idea of how long the recovery will take.
But when the injury is to the head, when that searing thunderclap of helmet on helmet echoes in the stadium and shakes the leaves on the trees, well, all bets are off.
A concussion is a traumatic injury to the brain, that humming three-pound mass of close to one hundred billion neurons that allows us to think and to move and to be, really. When it gets violently jostled by a hard blow to the head, it slams up against the skull, and chaos ensues.
The symptoms of a concussion are numerous. They vary from individual to individual and from concussion to concussion. They may include a short lack of consciousness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, sensitivity to light, noise or other stimulation, confusion, vision problems, issues concentrating, loss of memory, depression, anxiety and balance issues, though this is not a complete list. The symptoms usually clear within several days, though they can linger for weeks, even months, and there are worries the effects may be deeper and more long-lasting than we’d imagined.
Concussions aren’t confined to contact sports, or even to sports. A fall on a slippery sidewalk, a car accident, or even hitting your head on an overhead cabinet can give you a concussion. But contact sports up the risk. And in a contact sport like football, where collisions occur on every play, concussions happen.
In the not-really-so-old days, they were called dingers, or getting your bell rung. Players would shake off the hit on the sideline, take a whiff of smelling salts, and run—or wobble—back on to the field of play. Which is about the worst thing you could do.
We know that now. We know that because of more sophisticated medical testing and imaging technology. We know the effects of a concussion can last days or even weeks. And we know that the risk of another concussion is far greater in the first week or two after the initial concussion.
However, while it’s true that medical science has made great strides in increasing our understanding of brain injuries, much is still unknown.