Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Concussions: Brain Damage for the Every-Man

Disclaimer: Our guiding principle here at Sketchy Science is the belief that science is fun and that understanding the way things work can give you a deeper appreciation for the world you live in. With that in mind, we try to have fun and make jokes. We plan to continue that today, but keep in mind that this topic is a serious one. We hope this information can promote some good judgment among our readers.

Have you ever hit your head really, really hard? Most people have done it at least once and it is a pretty unique experience when it happens. Your vision blurs to a total white out, you stagger on your feet, you can’t think or speak for a few minutes, you might even lose consciousness. Few things cause a person to panic as quickly as losing control of their own brain, but that is exactly what a concussion is.

One of the coolest things about neuroscience is the ridiculous relationship between cause and effect. If I put an electrode in your brain in just the right spot and switched it on, I could make you pick your nose or slap your face or yell out your deepest darkest secrets in a crowded operating room. Your brain is an incredible network of cells that uses electrical impulses to control every part of you. In a very real sense, those electrical impulses are you. That’s why a blow to the head messes you up so badly, so quickly.

Basically, a concussion is what happens when your brain and your skull disagree about where they are moving to. Your brain is in motion, and as all things in motion do, it wants to stay in motion. But sometimes something blocks your way and brings your skull to a crashing halt. Examples may include a wall, the sidewalk, or a 350 pound linebacker. When this happens, your brain slams into your skull and as you might expect, bad things happen.

Blood vessels can tear, swelling and bruising can set in. Your brain may be the most complex organ in your body, but when you smush it a little it reacts the same way all your other organs do. The downside is that swelling and tearing in your brain prevents your body from functioning properly.

The obvious symptoms (headache, blurred vision, unresponsive pupils) can last anywhere from a couple days to a couple months. However, just because you stop noticing the effects doesn’t mean you are back to 100%. Research has shown that abnormal brain function can continue for years following a concussion.

That may sound really bad, and in a sense it is, but the good news is that if you rest and avoid blunt force trauma to the head following a concussion your brain can heal itself and eventually get back to normal. Hits to the head happen. I would even go as far as to say that if you never get a concussion, you’re not being adventurous enough. But, that being said, there are real and serious consequences to getting multiple concussions in quick succession.

In the short-term the biggest threat from a bonk on an already concussed noggin is Secondary Impact Syndrome. What happens with SIS that that your already damaged blood vessels get pushed too far. Your brain hemorrhages, swelling suffocates blood flow throughout your brain, and you either go into a coma or you die. Not fun stuff.

Fortunately SIS isn’t very common. Unfortunately, multiple blows to the head (even small ones) can also cause your brain to scar and degenerate. This condition is called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and it is increasingly being observed in the brains of retired football and hockey players. People with CTE in their 20’s and 30’s have the brains of 80 year old Alzheimer’s patients. CTE can lead to memory loss, depression, loss of motor control, and early death.

Clearly concussions are serious stuff and your brain is something you should probably look into taking good care of. Wear a helmet if you’re playing contact sports and if you even think you have a concussion, take the day off. Get some sleep (the old advice about trying to stay awake is pure myth) and wait out the headaches. It’s a dangerous world out there, so use your head… just not as a battering ram.