I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between a concussion/ traumatic brain injury and natural disasters. And again, I’m thinking about the recent storms in the northeast, when there was a winter storm, complete with warnings from government officials to stay home and keep off the roads … in October. Crazy.
Anyway, looking at the weather.com site, I saw that there was a notice about “Non-essential travel” being discouraged while the storm was in full-swing…. And I think afterwards, too. It was probably to give all the trucks a chance to salt and sand the roads, as well as keep people from getting into accidents. Makes sense — this early in the year, I doubt people are ready for winter driving. These things take some practice. It takes time to acclimate.
And it got me to thinking about the initial period right after concussion, when you’re not supposed to do anything but rest and relax. It can be so maddening, being told to stay still. No television, radio, reading, no texting, no surfing the web, no playing video games. Nothing. Just that awful silence and the terrible not-knowing about what’s going on with you.
All you know is, your doctor told you that you have to take it easy, rest, and not do anything. For just how long, nobody knows. It’s one of those wait and see situations. It can be incredibly tough – especially for athletes who want nothing more than to be up and about and very active.
But what if we thought about it like this — after concussion, it’s like you just got hit with 31 inches of snow — in late October. Roads are closed. Trees are down. Wires are hanging off poles. Ice is on the tarmac. And the power has gone out. Inside your head, the chemical reactions of your brain — the potassium leaving the cells on impact, followed by an influx of energy-inhibiting calcium — the same sort of thing has happened. You’ve gotten hit with a biochemical “storm” that is inhibiting normal brain function, as surely as 31 inches of snow will inhibit regular travel on roads.
How long it takes to clear, is anybody’s guess. That’s what people in New England are finding out these days. Looks like some are still without power, a week after the storm. And dealing with the initial aftermath was a time-consuming and very frustrating period, as some of my Massachusetts friends have related. One family just got back in their house after six days of staying with friends. They had no way of knowing, from one day to the next, when they’d be able to go back. Roads were variable, nobody knew where all the trees and wires were down, and aside from turning off the water and shutting off the stove before they left, they had no way of knowing for sure if their house had weathered the storm alright, until they got back on Friday. Other neighbors had their power on, days prior. Others had more damage to their property, with trees and wires coming down all over the place. Some had generators and could stay on-site with a little heat and one light, while others also fled to friends and relatives elsewhere. It was different for everyone, and after things got back to “normal” there was a ton of work to do to clean up and get things back to working order.
It’s the same way with concussion. Each injury is different, and one person may have all sorts of connections fried, while another person can “get off” relatively easily, healing up quickly. The main thing is, you never know, from one person to the next. You just have to sit tight, chill, and trust that your brain is clearing out the calcium that seeped into the cells when the potassium exited, and that the cells in your brain are going to wake up again — or other cells will be recruited to take on more work of a different kind.
In order for things to get back to normal, you have to give your brain a fighting chance to clear things out. Like the trucks from the DPW clearing snow and spreading salt and sand. Like the trucks from the electric company that are fixing poles and reconnecting wires. Like the tree service folks who are clearing fallen limbs and trees and feeding them into the chipper, one quarter mile at a time. From town to town, from road to road, you can never tell what you’re going to find after a major storm. And the same is true, from brain to brain, from person to person, even from one part of the brain to the other. You just have to rest, let the internal functions clear out the calcium, stop the depression of those cells, and let them get things as restored as possible, before you start running around, turning on lights and playing games and watching television.
Of course, the recovery period can be variable from person to person. That, too, can make you crazy. And what’s more, the perception of recovery can vary as well, depending on a number of factors, including the individual’s ability to self-assess, their eagerness to get back into regular life, how attentive/observant the people around them are… a whole host of issues can play a role in shortening or lengthening that initial recovery period — for better or for worse.
The biggest danger, of course, comes from returning to regular life too soon…. like going out on the roads in the middle of the night before they’ve been cleared of snow and debris. Pushing yourself too hard, too fast, can put you on a collision course with another concussion. And anyone who’s been out in the middle of the night, driving on narrow, nearly impassable roads when the snowplows are out can tell you what that’s like — not good.
So, if you’ve just had a concussion, give yourself — your body and your brain — a chance to recover and get back to normal. It can be frustrating to have everything come to a complete halt, but like an early storm that hits with unprecedented strength, sitting out for a while is an investment in your future, not a waste of time.