Concussions are derby’s dirty little secret; most of us just hope we don’t get a concussion, but we all know people who have experienced them and have dealt with the effects and the long term healing process that comes along with brain trauma.
As our sport changes and we see more directional play and walls that stay still while a jammer slams into them, we are going to see more people suffering and reporting traumatic brain injuries. I’ve been researching the impact of brain injuries in our sport ever since my friend, and derby official Percy Q-Tion died of a traumatic brain injury (TBI). His was not caused by derby, but he was the first person to open my eyes to the issue of concussions and how we are all putting ourselves at risk playing this sport.
There is a lot of misinformation about concussions and what they are, mostly because doctors really didn’t have a great grasp on how traumatic brain injuries impact our health until recently. Veterans coming home with TBIs, professional football players coming forward with their stories, and the advances in medicine have opened up a new understanding of how our brains react to trauma.
Since I’m going to throw around words like “concussion” and “traumatic brain injury” I felt like we should start at ground zero with the definition of concussion. One of the best definitions I’ve found explains the traumatic brain injury in simple words.
A bump, blow, or jolt to the head can cause a concussion, a type of traumatic brain injury. Concussions can also occur from a blow to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth—literally causing the brain to bounce around or twist within the skull. This sudden movement of the brain causes stretching, damaging the cells and creating chemical changes in the brain. Once these changes occur, the brain is more vulnerable to further injury and sensitive to any increased stress until it fully recovers. Unlike a broken ankle, or other injuries you can feel with your hands, or see on an x-ray, a concussion is a disruption of how the brain works. It is not a “bruise to the brain.”
Over the years, I’ve heard many false and ridiculous statements about concussions. Sometimes I see people posting them in various derby groups, and as medical science advances, I hope we can bury some of these myths about brain trauma. Since 2009, I’ve slowly been gathering myths and their counters to try and help educate myself and others in the derby community. Here are some of the more prevalent ones I’ve run into.
- A helmet will keep me from getting any brain trauma. As much as I wish this was true, it’s not. Helmets can prevent or lessen direct hit brain trauma, but they can’t do anything about rotational impact or whiplash brain trauma. Helmet designers have been trying to create the perfect helmet for decades, and they still can’t stop concussions from happening; there is no bullet-proof helmet out there, no matter what the advertisers tell you.
- A helmet will do nothing to protect me, so I shouldn’t have to worry about the quality or the number of times my helmet has been hit. Yes, helmets can’t stop all concussions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t stop some! If you have a helmet that’s taken several hits, or a helmet that isn’t rated to take several hits, or a helmet with a soft liner, you’re upping your chances of being a victim of a concussion. How many times have you dropped your helmet while carrying your gear somewhere? How many times have you thrown your gear into the trunk, and your helmet to the brunt of it? Maybe it’s time to really take a look at your helmet and think about a replacement. Yes, yes, I know you had your helmet painted special, and you love love love it, but your brain is much more important. (I hope)
- You only get a concussion if you receive a direct hit to the head. As I mentioned in the helmet discussion, your brain is vulnerable to a lot of trauma, not just direct hits. If your head snaps backwards because someone clockwise blocks you, your brain may be suffering a directional injury. Have you ever landed on your butt really hard and your head snapped back due to the impact traveling up your body? Ever shake a raw egg? Hear that sloshing around? Now picture your brain slamming against the walls of your skull the same way the yolk is hitting the shell. Our bodies are amazing and they protect our brains for day-to-day activities, but derby is not your average day-to-day activity.
- Mouth guards protect you from concussions. The jury is definitely still out on this one. Originally, the experts believed that mouth guards added some small protection, but as the study of TBI (traumatic brain injury) has advanced, studies have shows that mouth guards do very little to protect the brain from injury. Does that mean we shouldn’t wear them in derby? Well, I guess that depends. Do you like your teeth? I wore braces for four very painful years, so I’m definitely a fan of mouth guards.
- You have to lose consciousness to have a concussion. Believe it or not, most people don’t lose consciousness when experiencing a traumatic brain injury. People feel stunned, disoriented, or slow to react. They may have lost time or memory of the situation, but they don’t always lose consciousness. There is no fail-safe way to quickly identify if someone has a concussion. Wouldn’t it be great if we came with a light that started blinking when we had that kind of brain trauma?
- You can train and strengthen your body to never have a concussion. I think the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard a roller derby athlete say was “Only weak people get concussions.” That’s the kind of attitude that keeps our community from discussing this injury in an open fashion, and it has to stop. Yes, we can strengthen our necks to help minimize our chances of sustaining a TBI, and Roller Derby Athletics has a great routine that can help, but you can’t strengthen the fluid protecting your brain. Physics overcomes ignorance of science any day of the week, and your brain is still vulnerable to directional forces. If you know someone who has sustained a TBI, please, for the love of all that is derby, do not say “you just need to train your body to not get them.” I never wish physical ill on anyone, but if I hear you say that, I hope you get an infected hemorrhoid. Clearly, your brains are located in your ass. Never blame the person who has received a TBI unless they were banging on their own heads with a hammer while singing “happy happy joy joy.”
- A CT scan or MRI will rule out a concussion. Concussions can be microscopic damage that won’t show up in a scan; stop thinking of it as a bruise to the brain. TBIs can cause cellular damage which can have a giant impact on how the brain functions, even though modern science can’t always detect it. The best way to detect a TBI is having a baseline concussion test BEFORE you ever put your brain at risk, and then if you suspect you have a TBI, they can compare the results with the original test. Get a baseline concussion test, and test your kids if they play a contact sport!
- Child athletes and adult athletes recover from concussions at the same rate. Children’s brains are much more susceptible to brain trauma, and they take longer to recover. When a child athlete (under the age of 18) has a TBI, it can impair their brain’s development, and interfere with their ability to learn. Kids and concussions are a terrible combination; if your child athlete does have a TBI, really work with your doctor to put them on the path to recovery before you put them back into the sport. Recovering from a TBI can take months; sports can wait.
- Male and female athletes have the same concussion risk. Whether women report them more, or are more sensitive to the symptoms, women tend to have a higher incidence of reporting concussions in sports. Does this mean that men don’t get concussions? Ask the NFL if men get concussions; anyone can get them, but female athletes definitely seem to report them more often.
- Athletes will always report to their trainers or coaches when they suspect they have a concussion. How many times have you hidden or downplayed an injury in front of your coach or teammates? Sometimes athletes don’t want to admit when they’re injured and need to be benched to recover; when an athlete has a TBI, they may not be able to make the decision to pull themselves from a game or practice. It’s important that your league has a head trauma policy in effect so coaches and trainers don’t have to be put on the spot arguing with someone who might be compromised by a TBI. Protect your players with policy.
- Concussions don’t have lasting effects. We’ve all seen action movies where the hero gets clonked on the head and is awake and kicking the bad guy’s ass “some time later.” I personally blame action movies for a lot of TBI misconceptions; concussions can impact people for months or even years. Emotional responses become more acute, balance issues, concentration, and verbal abilities can all be impacted for a long time due to a concussion. It’s not something you can will yourself to ‘get over’; you aren’t weak because of this injury, you’re human.
I watched my friend struggle with a TBI for four years. He had issues with lost time, regaining his verbal abilities, dealing with damage to his pituitary gland, mood swings, and impulse control. His TBI was severe and the doctors didn’t think he could survive the initial injury; when he did, the doctors told him due to his balance issues, he most likely would fall again and have another TBI. Unfortunately, it happened exactly the way they said it would, and a second TBI killed him.
Percy’s TBI introduced me to exactly how horrible brain trauma can be. Before this, I had no clue how long people with a TBI can have their lives impacted by the symptoms. People suffer with different impairments and have different periods of healing, so if someone in your league has a TBI don’t be an ass about it. Just because you can’t see the injury, doesn’t mean it’s not real and that it’s not having a huge effect on their lives.
Elektra Q Tion is a monthly contributor for Derby Central and writes articles on her own blog, “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Loose Wheel.” If you have suggestions for topics she should cover, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.