What I Learned from Overcoming a Major Concussion

Statistically speaking there is a good chance that you, a friend, or a loved one, has suffered from a concussion. According to the NCAA, females are twice as likely as males to receive a concussion from soccer, due to a difference of neck strength between the sexes among other factors. A brain injury is not like a broken arm. No one can visibly see how you are injured, so it can be hard for someone who has never suffered from a concussion to understand how it affects one’s life and attitude.

I missed multiple months of school my sophomore year at boarding school after suffering a major concussion on the soccer field. My life was turned upside down afterward, and it took me over a year to return to full physical activity and two years for my symptoms to completely clear. It was difficult for others to understand exactly what I was going through, so here are a few things everyone should know about concussions.

Not All Concussions Are Equal

It is extremely frustrating to have a concussion belittled by people who say, “It is not that big of a deal, I went back to school a week after I got a concussion.” Here is the truth: some concussions are minor and one can return to activity a few weeks later. However, others can take months to go away. One can also develop “post-concussion syndrome” where they experience prolonged symptoms following their concussion. There is no set deadline as to when one should be over their concussion. There are many symptoms that come along with concussions and can affect individuals differently.

What Makes the Migraines Worse?

An unrelenting migraine is the staple symptom, but what brings it on? Sound and light are migraine triggers, but motion is a huge one as well. Certain smells can trigger migraines  depending on the individual. For me cigarette smoke and several perfumes would instantly cause a migraine. Physical exertion, air pressure, and changes in weather can also cause migraines.

I could always tell when my migraine was from the air pressure change, because I could look around me in class and see that my close friends who had suffered multiple concussions were struggling with migraines that day too. I had always had a great memory, and my memories were extremely detailed and spatially accurate. After my concussion I would get a migraine when I first walked into a room. My brain was trying to take everything in at once and register every detail in my memory, but could not handle that while I was concussed.

Everyone’s brain works differently, so different little functions like this could give you a migraine while concussed. The most important takeaway is that each individual can have unique migraine triggers, and each of the common triggers can give an individual a pain ranging anywhere between a headache and a full blown, temporarily blinding migraine.

Unseen Symptoms

There are many different symptoms that go along with concussions and are extremely important to be aware of. When first struggling with my concussion, short term memory loss and an inability to focus were two of my worst symptoms. Regardless of how much I studied for a test or how well I knew the material, I would sit down to take a test and it was like I had never taken a derivative before. Luckily, there was another girl in my calculus class who had also recently suffered a major concussion, so when we both approached our professor in frustration, blank tests in our hands, she knew our concussions were the culprit. The focusing and short term memory loss resulted in slow test taking and slow sentence formation at times.

You Can’t Push Past the Migraines

An aspect of concussions which can be hard for athletes to accept is that in some cases you cannot push past the migraines. During my initial three-month recovery period at home, every attempt to concentrate was met with a migraine. The longer I tried to focus on something, the worse the migraine became. After a certain point, I would cloud over and my brain would feel as though it were shutting off, and I would struggle to make it to my bed to fall asleep instantly. The longer I tried to push past the pain and ignore the migraine, the longer I would sleep for afterward.

Academics

I was blessed in that I received my major concussion while at a school filled with compassionate teachers who genuinely cared about my success. I attended boarding school on a full scholarship based on academic merit, so suddenly losing all of my brain power was one of the scariest things to happen to me. It can be difficult for teachers to know what to do with a student suffering from a concussion. Imagine one of your most hardworking students suddenly turning in blank tests, and not remembering what you just explained to them only a few minutes ago. If a teacher really cares about a student, seeing this kind of change can be frustrating and heartbreaking for them as well. There are some ways teachers helped me succeed even while still suffering symptoms of my concussion. Teachers printed my tests on blue paper rather than white, as it reduces the glare from fluorescent lighting. This method was surprisingly effective.

Another method some teachers used for me was administering my exams orally rather than having me take the written test. Speaking out loud helped to jog my memory and provided my professors insight to how my brain was retrieving information. Some common academic supports for concussed students is to allow them to take tests privately to reduce distraction and to let them out of class early so they can make it to their next class while avoiding the movement of traffic that causes migraines.

Overcoming a Major Concussion

Regaining the ability to focus without getting a migraine was a multiple month long recovery process for me. What I did on my own that helped me push past this point was using water color painting and playing the piano to exercise concentration in small intervals paired with relaxation. I focused on painting the shape I was aiming for until a migraine would start to creep in, then I would stop pushing myself and just paint randomly to relax my brain. My drive has always been my best attribute until I received this concussion and the only way I could recover was to not push myself.

Current Life

One millisecond on the soccer field defined my life for two years, and altered the way I see everything today. It took time for me to gain perspective, but I am now thankful for what happened to me. My journalism professor had sustained concussions in high school and gave me a valuable piece of information: connecting something to as many other memories as possible will strengthen the security of that memory in your brain. This method is how I finally overcame my concussion, and became a superbly analytical person. Now that I connect everything I learn and do to one another, my brain is more capable of reaching into unexpected sources of information for problem solving purposes.

When I found this to be my strength, I realized my future in engineering. Understanding how my brain works and temporarily experiencing my brain functioning very different from normal, I can now see how diversely each individual’s brain can work. This perspective is vital in respecting others and realizing there is no black vs. white version of smart vs. dumb. We all learn differently and have different strengths to contribute to approaching problems. Never underestimate someone’s brain power just because their brain might not work exactly the same way as yours.

 

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