Why Concussions Are So Hard To Diagnose

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Eight years ago, 11-year-old Zack Pope got beaned during a little league game. He finished the game strong and everything seemed fine. It wasn’t until a month later he began to complain of feeling dizzy, and migraine headaches became a regular problem for Zack. Five months later, a neurologist finally connected the dots. Zack had a concussion from getting beaned, or hit in the head by a pitch, and the symptoms were a result of that concussion.

Six years later, Zack’s 10-year-old brother got beaned. This time around, the symptoms began immediately. Ben was hit with dizziness, double vision, and similar to Zack, migraines.

Both boys still have migraines to this day, resulting from a genetic tendency combined with the concussions.

Dana Pope, the boys’ mother, told Julie Mack from MLive.com, “There was a genetic tendency, but it may have never come out if not for the concussions, which seem to trigger it.”

These boys’ stories help show the difficulties facing diagnosing and treating concussions. Dr. Thomas Goodwin, a sports medicine specialist, says concussions are the hardest injuries physicians have to treat.

“If you break a bone, it’s obvious. You can see it. With a concussion, it’s often not obvious, there’s no test for concussions […] It’s a clinical diagnosis, where you’re looking at things like memory and awareness.”

Treatment and diagnosis of concussions are getting better, thanks to years of brain research involving professional athletes, which connect repeated concussions with a higher risk of depression, chronic headaches, and early-onset dementia.

All of this research, however, has left us with more questions than answers. “It’s a case of the more we know, the less we know,” Goodwin stated.

What is a concussion?

People commonly refer to concussions as “a bruise to the brain,” but that vastly underscores the complex nature of concussions. The injury results from the brain slamming against the skull, stretching brain tissues and tearing nerves. While normally associated with direct hits to the head, you can also get a concussion from any jolt to the body strong enough to cause a head snap.

Many symptoms and issues stemming from concussions result from chain reactions set off by the injury, which disrupt the brain’s natural chemistry.

The most commonly associated symptom of concussions, loss of consciousness, actually occurs in only less than 10 percent of concussions. The symptoms of a concussion that are more likely to appear are less easy to notice. They include feeling dazed, stunned, or confused, as well as slow or slurred speaking. Other symptoms include feeling sluggish, sad, or irritable, headaches, nausea, balance problems, sensitivity to noise or light, and tingling or numbness.

The symptoms also frequently take as much as a week to appear.

There are new standards being put in place to protect athletes from brain trauma as we learn more about their serious and complex nature, especially focusing on young athletes. Many schools now have computer tests to get baseline statistics for athletes at the beginning of the season, so that if an athlete becomes concussed, they have information to compare to.

Some people are worried about possible overreactions following this newer research on concussions. A small hit to the head can lead to hospital visits for what may be nothing. We all know going to a hospital isn’t cheap, and not knowing whether or not to take the hit seriously can be frustrating. But, Goodwin encourages parents to always pay attention to what could be a concussion.

“[Not knowing] is the hard part, but we tend to err on the side of caution.”

 

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