10 Things I Wish I Had Known About Getting a Concussion
Even "minor" concussions are serious injuries.
It was a typical overcast day in Berkeley, California, as I crawled down the rush hour gridlock on San Pablo Ave with a trunk full of groceries. My stomach was growling, but I knew I wasn’t getting home anytime soon in the stop-and-go traffic. While crossing an intersection, the truck in front of me came to a sudden stop, and I slammed on my brakes. I breathed a sigh of relief when I narrowly avoided rear-ending them.
That moment of relief lasted only a split second, until I felt the impact. I had been hit by the car behind me.
It wasn’t the first time I had been rear-ended, and it wouldn’t be the last. However, this seemingly minor fender-bender turned out to have longer-lasting impacts than I would have ever imagined. I didn’t know it yet, but I had a concussion.
Over the next year, I learned more about concussions than I ever wanted to. I learned these things the hard way, and I’m sharing them now in hopes that you won’t have to.
1. You Won’t Always Know Right Away That You’re Concussed
While it’s common for those who have suffered a brain injury to blackout, it’s not unusual to show no immediate symptoms. Sometimes it can take hours, or even days, for symptoms to show up after an accident. Thinking that I was totally fine, my main concerns after the collision were trying to get home before the ice cream in my trunk melted, and how I could eat the prepared salad I bought for dinner without a fork while waiting for the tow truck.
After the long ordeal of getting my car towed home and clumsily trying to eat my salad with a plastic spoon, my groceries and I made it home intact. My partner at the time came over that night, and we had a couple of beers while I recounted my experience. I didn’t know at the time that drinking alcohol was the last thing I should have been doing.
I felt alright other than being a little shaken up, so we decided to walk over to the movie theater for a distraction. It was a new release, so there was a long line. It was while in line that I started to feel dizzy and lightheaded. Between one moment and the next, I was on the ground. I realized I had passed out, and my partner had caught me as I fell. Having had a couple of head injuries himself, he knew immediately what was wrong. I was concussed.
2. You Don’t Actually Have to Hit Your Head
I didn’t suspect a brain injury because as far as I knew, I hadn’t hit my head on anything. I have no memory of hitting my head on the steering wheel or slamming into the headrest behind me. I suppose it’s possible I had a momentary blackout that I don’t remember.
But what I learned was that it’s entirely possible to get a serious brain injury from the impact of your brain abruptly bouncing off the inside of your skull in a collision. That seemed to be the more likely scenario in my case.
3. Concussions Are Tricky to Diagnose
While brain imaging such as CT scans or MRIs can be used to determine if there is a skull fracture or internal bleeding, they are usually not used to diagnose concussions unless there is reason to suspect these things. Most concussions will not show up on a scan, and insurance companies will avoid approving them because of the expense.
I went to the doctor the day after the accident, and like many people who are concussed, I was diagnosed from the verbal description of the incident and my symptoms. As I never experienced more serious symptoms such as seizures or vomiting, I never received any sort of brain scan.
4. There’s Not a Whole Lot You Can Do To Treat Them
There really isn’t a lot of medical treatment options for concussions. The best thing you can do to treat a concussion is rest. Not just physical rest, but cognitive rest as well, which means no stimulating your brain by staring at screens, no Netflix, no reading, etc. Which, I can attest, makes for an extremely boring recovery period.
I took a week off of work, although I should have taken off longer. But that was all the paid time off I had available, and it’s not like you can rest much if you lose your apartment because you can’t pay rent. However, not being able to give my brain the full rest it needed made my recovery more difficult.
5. Other People Won’t Notice Your Symptoms
Most concussions symptoms are invisible: headaches, dizziness, and cognitive issues such as confusion, difficulty concentrating, and memory loss. This means that most of the people you encounter will have no idea that you are recovering from a serious injury. It’s like being the driver of a car with bad alignment -- you are constantly having to make adjustments that the passengers in the vehicle are unaware of. Nobody sees the extra mental work you are doing to make it appear that you are functioning normally.
So when I returned to work, most of my co-workers didn’t know that I was having to not only double, but triple-check everything I was doing because of my forgetfulness. I was a professional brewer at the time, which meant a lot of multi-tasking and remembering small details. One tiny mistake could potentially run thousands of dollars worth of beer, or damage expensive equipment. The quality of my work suffered, but since my supervisors couldn’t see my injury the way you can see a broken bone in a cast after an accident, it was impossible to make them understand how serious my symptoms were.
6. Even “Minor” Concussions Are Serious Injuries
The short-term memory issues were my most serious symptom, along with the constant screaming headache in my left temple that lasted for literally months. I wasn’t one to normally get headaches prior to the accident, and I was amazed by how painful it was. All I could do about it was take ibuprofen, and I had to bring only my daily allocation with me to work because I would forget whether I took them or not.
I didn’t experience some of the sensory symptoms that are common to concussions, such as blurred vision, sensitivity to light, ringing ears, or the loss of smell or taste. I also didn’t have to deal with some of the more serious symptoms such as seizures, vomiting, slurred speech, or additional blackouts. However, the headaches and cognitive issues from my “mild” concussion were bad enough on their own. Even minor concussions are serious injuries.
7. They Can Cause Long-Lasting Damage
Most people who experience mild traumatic brain injuries are recovered within a few weeks or months. However, some people can have the symptoms resurface months after they think they were recovered, in what is known as Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS).
I was one of the lucky people who had my symptoms return several months after the accident. I believe that it was at least in part because I had no choice but to push myself and keep working when what I needed was rest and recovery. But there is no way to know that for sure.
There can be less obvious long-term, or even permanent, effects from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). While my more severe symptoms lasted a good year or so, I still occasionally have issues with trying to remember the words for things almost a decade later. And when I get headaches, it still usually originates in the same place, in my left temple.
In addition, once you’ve had one concussion, you are more likely to get another one. Head injuries that would be mild on other people cause more serious damage to a brain that has previously been concussed. Studies have also shown that having a concussion early in life can increase your chances of developing dementia decades later. So I suppose I have that to look forward to as well.
8. It Can Be Hard to Get a Doctor To Take You Seriously
As there is no test to prove your symptoms are due to a concussion or PCS, it can be easy for general practice doctors to dismiss them. You really should see one that specializes in TBIs if possible.
When my symptoms resurfaced, I went back to my regular doctor. I was visibly distressed at the thought of going through the whole ordeal all over again, so she told me that my symptoms were only anxiety. She advised me to meditate more and prescribed me antidepressants that I couldn’t take since I operated heavy machinery for a living. She wouldn’t give me a referral to a specialist because she didn’t believe there was anything wrong.
9. Insurance Companies Are Not Your Friends
Dealing with my own and the other driver’s insurance companies was an extra headache I really didn’t need. My agent was so unresponsive that I had to contact the other company to get information she claimed she wasn’t able to get from them. The driver’s insurance company told me that they would reimburse me for medical expenses, which meant I would have to pay first and hope they approved the expense and followed through with paying me back as promised.
My personal medical insurance wouldn’t cover doctor’s visits that should be covered by the other driver’s car insurance. So, the only way to get the follow-ups I should have been getting would have been to pay out of pocket until I was reimbursed months later. I didn’t have the upfront money to do that, so I simply didn’t go.
Remember that the goal of insurance companies is to make money, and they will do whatever they can to avoid spending it. If they can get away with paying you less than you need or are entitled to, they absolutely will. They are not there to help you, and they are not on your side.
10. You Really Should Get an Attorney
A few people had suggested to me that I should get an attorney after an accident, and I wish I had listened to them. In my defense, people with recent head injuries aren’t known for their decision-making skills. But looking back, I feel like many things would have gone a lot easier if I had someone advocating for me.
If I had an attorney on my side, I might have been able to get the medical care I needed before my symptoms worsened, and been able to see a specialist. I could have taken more time off work to recover and been reimbursed for lost wages. I could have been compensated for the permanent damage to my brain instead of just a settlement for my vehicle.
So please don’t make the same mistake that I did, and underestimate the severity of concussions. Just because you are able to walk away from a car accident without a scratch does not mean you are OK. If you experience a TBI due to the actions of another, you should hire an attorney that specializes in brain injuries right away. Trust me, you will regret it if you don’t.