According to studies by the Utah Department of Health, concussions make up 75 percent of all traumatic brain injuries occurring nationally. And yet, many individuals aren’t aware of the symptoms.
Jason Johnson recently graduated from Cache Valley’s Ridgeline High School. He’s competitive and sports have always been a big part of his life.
He has experienced at least 10 concussions.
“I think around here you can start [playing football] when you’re eight years old," Johnson said. "I played football all growing up and then after I got a couple concussions in the last year of little league, my parents made me stop playing.”
Reporter: “So let’s talk about those first couple concussions that you got, because as a kid, what kind of prompted you to know that something was wrong?”
“With the very first one," Johnson said, "one of my teammates, his mom is a nurse and so she was at the game and she told me and my parents and said 'yeah, he’s got a concussion, he can’t play the rest of the game.' So I sat out the rest of the game and then when we got home we went up to the hospital and got checked out. And I did that probably for the first three or four concussions.”
“A concussion is usually considered the same thing as a mild traumatic brain injury or an MTBI and these are usually caused by either your falling and injuring your head or receiving a blow to your head,” said Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Neuroscience Initiative at the University of Utah.
According to Yurgelun-Todd, awareness about the damaging effects of a concussion to the brain is becoming more common, but she says it is still difficult to identify problems because damage can vary greatly from person to person.
After years of meeting with doctors to discuss his injuries, Johnson has learned that more than a dozen symptoms can characterize a concussion.
“Actually I brought a book because I go to the doctor’s like every week,” Johnson said as he pulled a pamphlet out of his bag.
Within it explains that a concussion can change the chemistry in your brain, disrupting signals that are there to make everyday functions easier. Johnson has been told by doctors that he has post-concussion syndrome which contributes to the many different symptoms he experiences daily.
“So there’s 16 symptoms and when I first looked at it, a lot of them I didn’t consider symptoms from concussions, I figured it’s just that I had other problems,” he said.
In addition to headaches and mental fogginess, sleep deprivation and emotional changes can be prompted by a brain injury.
“These are usually associated with changes in either, the stretching and alteration of your white matter in your brain, swelling of your brain, or also changes in the blood flow in different areas of your brain,” Yurgelun-Todd said.
These factors play a major role in determining the extent of a brain injury.
“It is also very much an individual determination as how the outcome would occur, but that aside, it does matter whether you’re nine or 15 or 25 or 45 and that’s because the brain is considered fully mature around ages 18-25,” Yurgelun-Todd said.
Johnson, who is 19, says it has been a challenge to explain the syndrome to his peers, teachers and friends so they can better understand his concussion symptoms and why he has to be careful.
He has told others: “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean there’s not something going on," he said. "I broke my collarbone when I was a junior and everyone treated that so much differently than they would treat me when I said I had a concussion.”
When he was first diagnosed, doctors advised Johnson to take it easy, telling him to take time off from school and avoid overstimulation that happens when looking at computer screens and bright lights. This helped for a while, but with each additional concussion, he says the symptoms increased.
“After you stack concussion on concussion," he said, "it kind of just gets to the point where you don’t get back to normal you just kind of stay the way it is. I probably got to concussion number four or five before the symptoms didn’t go away.”
In high school, Johnson made the switch from football to track, where he competed in short distance races. But, he continued to play sports after school with his friends, that is, until a recent check-up.
“One of the last doctors that I went to, she kind of looked at me and said you have to stop and I was like 'I can’t I’m a 19-year old kid. I’m going to be a 19-year old kid.' And she sat me down and said if I hit my head hard enough again I could go into a coma and never wake up,” Johnson said.
Johnson has irreversible brain damage from the 10 concussions he’s sustained and says he considers himself to be lucky that things aren’t worse. And, he says, there are many others like him who have post-concussion syndrome and don’t self-report or may not associate problems they are having with signs they have a brain injury.
“I know a number of people that have concussions and haven’t done anything about ‘em just because they’re kind of living with it,” Johnson said.
Although research to determine the impacts of concussions continues to advance, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports traumatic brain injury is still a leading cause of death and disability in the US.
Because of recent studies and media attention, parents, coaches and medical professional are beginning to realize the seriousness of these brain injuries. Johnson hopes the movement toward awareness, treatment and prevention will continue and that more people will come to understand the invisible challenges faced by those with concussions and other brain injuries.
Songs include Something for you M.I.N.D. by Superorganism and audio clips from the 2015 film Concussion.
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