Cover photo by Stefan Petry

In week four of the NFL season, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered two head injuries within a week. Only days after receiving a concussion in a game against the Buffalo Bills and being cleared, he played in another game. One hard sack later and Tagovailoa was on the ground with a seizure, his hands frozen in front of him from where they had been at the end of the play, taken by stretcher off the field. Public outrage ensued, with fans and critics alike calling for better concussion protocols, which the NFL has since updated

 Concussions are one of the most common high school sports injuries. According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, about one in five high school athletes that participate in contact sports will sustain a sports concussion during the season. According to M-A’s General Athletics Information, approximately 46% of M-A’s student body participate in a sport. 

Football Players dogpile; photo by Noah Eisner

Some sports put an athlete at higher risk for a concussion. For example, football has a much higher concussion risk than tennis. A study conducted by Head Case Company ranked the sports with the most concussion injuries. Football has 64 to 76.8 concussions per 100,000 athletic exposures, topping male sports. Girls’ soccer has a rate of 33 concussions per 100,000 athletic exposures, which is the highest in women’s sports. 

Senior Nicole Vanderzwan had her water polo season cut short by a moderate concussion. When she was asked about how the concussion influenced her school life, she replied, “It actually hurt to concentrate so my grades definitely went down.”

 Junior football player Emmanuel Wang also had a decline in school performance after his concussion diagnosis. He explained, “It was harder to focus on stuff and I felt a little nauseous.”

Concussions can be either mild, moderate, or severe. Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, a Stanford Neurosurgeon and the president of the Stanford Brain Trauma Foundation, said, “A mild concussion is when you’re awake, moderate is when you’re sleepy, and severe concussions result in comas.” Although severe concussions are extremely rare, athletes in high-contact sports can regularly suffer mild or moderate concussions. Some of their symptoms include dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and lack of sleep. 

 Ghajar said, “Concussions are different from other sports injuries because they’re the disruption of attention. It takes a while for concentration to come back after you’ve been injured. And if you can’t pay attention, you shouldn’t go back and do things that can cause injury like contact sports, driving, or getting on a bike. It’s also difficult if you have a job or school because you can’t do well if you’re not paying attention.”

Although it’s important to have updated concussion protocols, Ghajar advises people to focus on concussion prevention. Ghajar said, “Oftentimes when you get a concussion, what goes wrong is prediction.” This means that many athletes get concussions because they’re unable to anticipate oncoming contact, what Ghajar explained is called “readiness.” Ghajar explained a variety of ways to increase the brain’s readiness in order to help athletes prevent concussions in the first place. The first was sleep. Ghajar said, “Brain health is sleep. When you get a good sleep, you feel rested and your body is able to pay attention and predict better.” Athletes can also increase their prediction abilities by maintaining overall bodily health. Ghajar said, “A Mediterranean diet, hydration, and cardiovascular exercise are super important.” Mediterranean diets provide “cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory benefits.” Hydration “gives the brain energy to function including thought and memory processes.” Cardiovascular exercise increases blood flow to the brain which means “more energy and oxygen, which makes our brain perform better.” All of these benefits help the brain function effectively and efficiently, and therefore increase its readiness capability.  

A common misconception about concussion recovery is that complete rest is good. Ghajar said, “When people are told to rest during recovery, they often interpret that as, ‘Don’t exercise, just stay in a dark room and wait for your symptoms to go away. There’s absolutely no evidence that shows that this helps recovery. In fact, the evidence is that if you stay in your room and don’t do anything, you’re going to be out of it for a long time, and possibly get anxiety and depression.” Instead, Ghajar recommends stationary bikes and sleeping  good amount. Athletes achieve faster recoveries if they do light exercise and “it’s very hard to get injured on a stationary bike.” Ghajar estimated, “The average time for the athletes to get better is within 10 days.” 

If not handled properly, concussions can have lasting effects. Vanderzwan said she is still impacted by her injury weeks after the onset of symptoms, as “brightness and concentration still hurt.”

If athletes do not undergo the full recovery process before returning to their sport, they risk suffering from second impact syndrome, where “the brain rapidly swells shortly after a person suffers a second concussion before symptoms from an earlier concussion have subsided.” This has much more severe consequences, which can include brain bleeds, seizures, or even death. As with Tagovailoa, athletes still suffering from their first concussion have decreased “readiness” and are more susceptible to injuring themselves again. 

Although it’s understandable for athletes to want to come back to their sport as soon as possible, it’s important to understand that returning before fully recuperating can result in much more dangerous consequences and an even longer recovery. As Ghajar explained, when athletes return to their sport early, they won’t be anywhere near their best, and are much more likely to sustain injury. 

If you are unsure about whether or not you have a concussion, check if you have these symptoms or see a local doctor.

Michael Roman is a junior at M-A this year and this is his first year in journalism. He enjoys writing about sports. In his free time, Michael likes to play soccer, surf, and mountain bike.

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