By gubernatorial proclamation, March is officially “Brain Injury Awareness Month” in the state of Wisconsin. While this may come as news to some people, for those of us who work in the field it is the crown on a pretty good year for brain injury awareness.
Still, despite the publicity generated by Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, football concussions, and studies linking brain injury to domestic violence and incarceration, of late I have been thinking of the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
This thought was first prompted by a terrific article written by Luke Schaetzel revealing that despite the recent spate of news, research and horror stories surrounding football and brain injuries, many athletes at the University of Wisconsin are downplaying warnings about concussions and CTE.
As someone who works on behalf of people affected by brain injuries, this does not surprise me. The reason is that just about everyone downplays the dangers of head injuries until something happens to them or someone they love, so why should football players be any different?
The question I often ask is: Why are people so cavalier about the most important organ in their body? After all, a person’s every thought, emotion, and movement begins in the brain. I doubt people would ignore a similar threat to their beating heart.
After considerable thought, reading, and hundreds of discussions with people affected by brain injury, I have come up with three possible explanations.
First, consider what I call “the knock-out myth.”
The knock-out myth has been perpetuated for decades by movies, television, and the sport of professional boxing. The core of the myth is a person can be knocked unconscious, yet wake up an undetermined amount of time later with no residual effects from the experience.
Think about all the times you’ve watched John Wayne or your favorite TV detective get knocked cold only to recover and save the day before the credits roll.
Unfortunately, this is not reality.
If Hollywood injected a dose of realism into these scenes, the hero might have balance issues (no getting up and resuming the chase), slurred speech, a headache, and memory problems that might include not remembering how he was knocked cold in the first place. Heroes who get beat up week after week may experience anxiety, depression, and a laundry list of physical issues that would undoubtedly lead to problems on the job and at home.
The second reason people ignore head injuries is to try to be tough.
I cannot begin to count the stories I’ve heard from people who suffered concussions but did not do anything about it. Several of these people were knocked momentarily unconscious, yet they chose to soldier on without treatment.
The reasons are as many as the stories, though there are a few trends. Many can’t afford to miss work, so they head to the office despite symptoms that make their jobs difficult. Others had people who depend on them — family, co-workers and teammates — so they put the needs of others ahead if their own health. Still others didn’t want their friends to think a little bump on the head was enough to slow them down.
In most all these cases the brain injury took its toll in the form of a lost job, family issues, or some type of health crisis.
The third reason people ignore head injuries is denial. Some people simply don’t want to believe brain injury is a thing, often claiming news coverage is overblown to advance some type of agenda.
For example, last fall I met a parent who regretfully told me “playing high school football was the highlight of my life,” but his perspective changed when his son concussed himself on a routine play. This same parent had been convinced there was a “war on football” prior to the injury hitting home. He knew the risks, but denied them due to his love of the game.
I’ve heard similar laments from people who didn’t wear bike helmets or seat belts. These folks learned about concussions the hard way.
At the Brain Injury Alliance of Wisconsin, we want you to protect yourself and not ignore any threat to your brain. As we recognize Brain Injury Awareness Month, keep these two thoughts in mind.
First, brain injury can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. That means it can happen to you. All you need to be is in the wrong place at the wrong time to have your life turned upside down by TBI.
Second, if you hit your head and see stars, see a doctor. Don’t believe what you see on television. Don’t think you need to tough it out. It is better to be safe.
You only have one brain, and it needs to serve you for your entire life.
Karl Curtis is executive director of the Brain Injury Alliance of Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization formed in 1980 as the Wisconsin Head Trauma Association. It serves all people affected by brain injuries in Wisconsin.
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