Action sports athletes know concussions are no joke

helmets prevent concussion
#HelmetsAreCool. (They save your brain.) Photo: Shutterstock

During the last week in March, I performed quite a stately swan dive into the side of a mountain. The pain in my head penetrated the adrenaline's fleece almost immediately. I didn't lose consciousness (that I'm aware of), and I didn't vomit — two common symptoms of concussions — but I was definitely "off."

Ski patrol sent me home with a sheet that began "Head Injury: Basic Information" and a directive to rest up and avoid alcohol and screen time. Two weeks later, my brain felt like it was being squeezed in a vise. I was wearing multiple pairs of sunglasses — inside. Sensitivity to light and sound, dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, headaches, irritability and memory loss are just a few of the symptoms commonly experienced by concussion patients. It was only then that I was told to take time off from work.

As an avid skier, as well as a self-professed medical geek, I was frustrated with how little I knew about concussions (nothing) and the apparent ignorance of many people around me. So, I did what I do best: I Googled. And then I asked a few experts.

Don't act like this has never happened to you. Put a lid on it. Photo: Shutterstock
Don’t act like this has never happened to you. Put a lid on it. Photo: Shutterstock

Simply put, a concussion is a form of mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) during which the brain is shaken inside the skull. It feels as awful as it sounds. Turns out that more than three million concussions occur each year in the U.S. (according to the Centers for Disease Control), and a 2014 study shows that head and neck injuries (HNI) account for 11.3 percent of action-sports athletes' injuries. Concussions are the most common type.

Studies also suggest that the damage caused by concussions can be cumulative.

"We think that the more concussions you have, the more problematic it is," says Dr. Roger Härtl, director of spinal surgery and neurotrauma at the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center in New York, which he founded. He's also the neurosurgeon for the New York Giants.

"The problem is [that] nobody knows exactly how to diagnose a concussion," he says. "There's not a [consistent] scale [or criteria] that we can use; the symptoms are sometimes so vague, and people experience them differently.

"You should take any type of impact that causes nausea, vomiting, headaches, memory problems, etc., very seriously and have that evaluated at a concussion clinic like Cornell or an emergency room," Dr. Härtl continues. "And, obviously, protect your brain: Wear a helmet."

Few make a more compelling case for the use of helmets than professional snowboarder Danny Toumarkine. He suffered a catastrophic TBI in January 2011 after hitting a routine jump and colliding with a tree. He wasn't wearing a helmet.

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Toumarkine was in the intensive care unit for three weeks and underwent four brain surgeries. Doctors told him that if he had been wearing a helmet, he likely would have had a severe concussion instead of a life-threatening TBI. He now works with the High Fives Foundation, which provided him immense support during his recovery, to promote their #HelmetsAreCool campaign.

Professional freeskier and mountain biker and co-founder of the SAFE-AS women's avalanche-safety clinics, Jackie Paaso stresses the importance of wearing helmets properly to prevent injuries. For example, the strap should always be buckled and the helmet should be well-fitted to your head. That’s how they are designed to work. Paaso's sponsor, Scott, has actually incorporated some new technology into several of its helmets: MIPS Brain Protection Systems reduce rotational forces on the brain to better absorb concussion-causing jolts and "angled impacts."

Of course, snowsports athletes aren't the only ones at risk for head injuries. Among action sports, skateboarding actually carries the highest risk for HNIs, and most surfers know that the presence of water does not ensure a soft place to land.

Hawaiian surfer Nathan Carvalho, 22, got a concussion while surfing Yokohama Bay on Oahu about a year and a half ago. "A wave landed really close in front of me. I got pushed down and hit the reef with the right side of head," he says. "I was lucky I didn’t die. [I] ended up with 28 staples [across] two gashes in my head, and that was it — no fractures or internal bleeding. I was awake the whole time."

Carvalho says that though he healed quickly, he was affected in a few different ways — most of all by knowing that he could have been killed.

"[It] definitely makes me a little more cautious," he says, "and I think the next time I’m surfing some pretty big waves, a helmet would be smart."

Dr. Härtl adds, "I think the most important thing is to think about what you're doing, and that there is a risk. No matter how much you have prepared and how much you think you're in great shape, and that it's not going to happen to you, know that head injuries happen all the time and they can have devastating consequences."

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