The Invisible Injury

Human brain surrounded by the fog caused during a concussion. Concussions have a large emotional and physiological damage on students. Illustration by Alyson Sutherland.

Honestly, being concussed sucks. Concussions make no sense, as they have no kind of timeline or true understanding, not to mention the lack of a true recovery plan aside from rest. When concussed, you consistently feel dizzy, forget basic things, and say things that often make no sense. The time from being hit to the return to play is humiliating and painful, with people around you constantly judging every decision you make, whether or not you ask them to. 

We haven’t fully learned everything there is to know about concussions, especially the brain’s immediate response to a powerful hit. Vaden Goble (Junior, he/him), a student at Franklin who has had no education regarding concussions, gave his guess at what happens on impact: “The brain gets all… shakiness.” This shows how little the average person will understand about concussions. Truth be told, I never thought about it myself until I was concussed…the second time. When concussed, the head is jerked violently in one way or another very quickly, and the brain bounces against the inside of the skull once. As said by Sir Isaac Newton, “for every action there’s an equal but opposite reaction.” Because of this gravitational law, each time your brain slides around and hits the side of the skull, it’s going to slide and collide again with the same force on the opposite side of the skull. So, despite popular belief, you can get concussions from whiplash because “concussions are caused by the stop of motion,” says Ru Conrad (they/them). This is why people can get concussions in car crashes without physically hitting the steering wheel, or on a really aggressive roller coaster. When you get hit, or your head stops in motion suddenly, it’s likely that you are now concussed, or in worse cases, you could have a brain bleed, so monitoring yourself in the time after the suspected cause is crucial. Gerilyn (Geri) Armijo (she/her), Franklin High School’s Athletic Trainer, acknowledges that even if you feel completely fine just after getting hit, it’s possible that a person can come back a few hours, or even days later, hurling their guts up, showing extreme symptoms.

Immediate symptoms for concussions are numerous, and you don’t have to exhibit every single one in order to be diagnosed with a concussion. Strangely, you could check almost all of them but not be concussed as well. Which is why Armijo asks any person that may be concussed a bunch of questions on top of the basic symptom checklist, which asks about the tell-tale symptoms, like headache, nausea, sensitivity to light, etc. in order to determine if the person being asked is in fact concussed. She’ll ask how much sleep they got the night before, what they ate and drank today, and she’ll ask menstruators if they are on their period. She does this to get a differential diagnosis, to see if the symptoms being presented are in fact because of a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or if they are just exhibiting symptoms because of some other factor. And not only does she do this when someone is hit, she will also usually follow up in the following days to make sure the person is alright and that no new symptoms have presented. 

But no matter how you get hit, or what symptoms you present, concussions are such mysterious injuries that no one can accurately predict, and it can be extremely alienating for the patients.  

The process for being concussed for the patients is also extremely confusing medically. Isabella Walker (she/her), who has been concussed since October 2021, was recently told by Armijo that she is now suffering from not a concussion, but post concussion syndrome, despite still consistently exhibiting symptoms. Walker was injured in a game against Franklin’s fated rivals, Cleveland, when she and another girl went up for a header at the same time, and got hit. All Walker remembers was “my body just told me to lie down on the ground,” then the play stopped and Walker was taken off the field. At the time, the Franklin Women’s Soccer program had numerous concussions in its ranks, and they determined at the time of the game that she was likely alright, but when the team returned to Franklin and Walker got checked out by our previous athletic trainer, she was in fact concussed, with 16/21 symptoms presenting. Walker was also experiencing panic attacks and a difficult time at home, all on top of how her concussion “just happened to coincide with [her] junior year, which I feel like most people have heard is the hardest year of high school…just because of the amount of testing there is. There’s a whole environment in which people feel almost a pressure to do their best because this is the year that matters.” This pressure is certainly felt across the class of 2023, as we are expected to take the PSAT and the SAT in the same year, as well as cope with COVID-19, and all of the AP and advanced classes being taken. It’s a mess, and any little thing has the potential to send juniors into a spiral, but they just don’t have the luxury of spinning out this year. 

The most obvious part about being concussed is there is no physical activity permitted, and for Walker, who plays soccer year round—with Franklin, PCU, and a newly founded rec league team, which Walker has taken up managing in lieu of not being able to play— this means losing a lot. “Your soccer team is a community of people who love and support you…Having my concussion meant I could no longer be a part of that,” Walker mentions. Because of the removal of soccer from Walker’s life for the past five months, as well as the stress that comes with being concussed as a student, Walker has talked about how she is experiencing worsening depression and anxiety. She constantly is walking on eggshells with her own brain, debating “is it better to keep doing what everyone else is doing, because that’s what’s going to give me a better chance at my future, or do I listen to my needs and run the risk of falling behind?” This is a constant debate for concussed people, who are at risk of falling behind, whether it be socially, physically, or academically. It’s a horrifying and stressful debate that no one really wins in. Healing from a concussion can feel like a waste of time, since the injury isn’t physical, it can often feel like there’s nothing to really recover from, nothing blocking you from continuing as you did but the knowledge that you are in fact, injured, despite what you may be told by anyone or everyone. 

The one concussed is the only one who knows what is happening in their head, and so it is then their responsibility to advocate for themselves, whether to parents, teachers, friends, or even yourself. Walker talked about what she would say to one who doesn’t know anything about concussions. She wants anyone who doesn’t understand to know that once again, every concussion is different, and you have to treat everyone with a concussion with empathy, since you have no idea what is going on in their head, and to the concussed, “You’re the person that knows your body the most.” You are the only one who can advocate for yourself. Once again, no one can accurately predict a concussion’s outcome, and there is no cure. You do what you can, and you try not to do the things that cause a spike in symptoms. It seems simple and yet, any person who has been concussed will tell you how conflicting it is, especially when it lasts as long as Walker’s has. 

Even when you have been concussed more than once, it’s not like the symptoms or timeline for the two of them will be the same. I have now been concussed twice; the first time was just about a year ago, and I had minor symptoms and was back on the field in four weeks. Fast forward a year to now, I have been concussed for five weeks, with continually fluctuating symptoms, not to mention the repetition of outside influence from my family and friends. Almost every day, someone will tell me that my symptoms must be fake, must be caused by something else, I should stop making excuses for not participating in track, for taking breaks when I’m in class. Walker, too, has experienced this from people close to her, as I’m sure countless others who have been concussed have also experienced. 

To all those people who are newly concussed, whether for the first time or the fourth (yeesh, I’m sorry), there are always the key points to remember: be kind to yourself, be patient, and remember, this won’t last forever, no matter how it may feel. You are the priority when you are injured; no matter what anyone else may say, that mentality of “I have to do this,” has got to go out the window when you are concussed, as you do not have to do all your tasks all the time. “I think it’s scary to realize that a person’s priorities—they don’t place themselves first…if a person gets a concussion, if a person gets any sort of illness, they’re not,” Walker says. But that is what is important. In order to heal, you have to slow down and remember that, if you push yourself now, it will take longer to heal, and the pain will only be prolonged.  

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