Brain Injury Awareness Month: Taking a Closer Look at that old Concussion, By Megan McCartney

It’s Brain Injury Awareness month, and for someone in my profession, that’s pretty exciting. It is exciting because it means that more and more people are becoming aware of the fact that, most brain injuries can be treated. Telling patients who’ve been referred to me that there may be hope on the horizon for them, is one of my greatest joys.

At last count, there were close to 9,000 people right here in Vermont living with a diagnosed brain injury. Unfortunately, there may be just as many who are suffering from a brain injury that has not been diagnosed.  But the more we learn about brain injuries and how the brain works to heal them, the more hope we have for increasing the quality of life of people with brain injuries. Brain injuries fall into two categories, acquired and traumatic. A stroke, a tumor, or any kind of brain surgery results in an acquired brain injury. Long COVID and tick borne illness can also be considered acquired brain injuries. Traumatic brain injuries, commonly called TBI’s, are a result of some type of trauma. Most TBI’s are a result of falls, though car accidents and people getting hit with falling items or hit are also common causes. Luckily, we are still able to treat people whose brain injuries occurred in the distant past and improve their quality of life.

As someone who’s been working with people who are suffering from brain injuries for many years now, I can tell you one thing with certainty: there is no such thing as “just a concussion.” Brain injuries require evaluation. Usually quick onset of nausea and/or vomiting, dizziness, and headache indicate a problem. Many brain injuries resolve with rest, but some require intervention. Some common symptoms of brain injury include high levels of fatigue, a constant low grade headache, difficulty with memory, difficulty with conversations, especially when conversing with more than one person, feeling easily confused, slow thinking or brain fog, difficulty with daily tasks like reading and grocery shopping, and sensitivity to light and noise.

As we learn more about brain injury, more people are recognizing symptoms and reaching out. While the growing awareness of brain injuries is a good sign, we still live in a culture that encourages us to “just push through it” when we feel sick or nauseous or lightheaded following a fall or an accident. Football players are encouraged to just shake it off and get back onto the field. Skiers and snowboarders likewise – they take a short break and get right back out on the slopes. In the weeks and months that follow, despite feeling a little “off” or a little out of sorts, they head in to work anyway and just push through the discomfort. We are trained from an early age not to be seen as “that person” who’s always complaining about being tired or not feeling well.

While no two brain injuries are the same, for many people the treatments are similar. And that’s because the brain has a hierarchy that’s the same in all of us. There’s the area around the brain stem that manages heart rate, breathing and basic life functions; an area called the cerebellum that manages balance and coordination; and the area in the front of the brain that manages vision, concentration, and memory. So when a patient comes in for the first time, I look to see how they’re walking, how they’re breathing, how they respond to questions, how or whether they make eye contact. It helps me better understand where their injury might be and from there, how to begin treatment.

We’re all human and none of us get through this life unscathed, but the growing interest in – and treatments for – brain injury are helping people recover their abilities and restore their enjoyment of life; people who long ago might have given up trying to sleep better, read books, go shopping, or enjoy a simple hobby.

March is brain injury awareness month, and it is my hope that anyone who is suffering from headaches or migraines; who’s experiencing trouble with balance and coordination; who’s struggling with memory loss or finding the right word to finish a sentence; or who feels dizzy and nauseous following exercise; I hope they will take the opportunity to see if – just maybe – the reason is a brain injury. Whether recent or far in the past, it could be the first step back towards a happier, healthier, and longer life.