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Head injuries in sport: messing with my mind

Various studies have being conducted showing that negative effects emerge when individuals endure repetitive injuries to the head. This seems pretty obvious, the brain is all soft and squishy, floating in some pretty important fluid with a fragile little shell surrounding it to protect it from the outside world. It makes you think that the brain is not made to be pounded over and over again. Evolution hasn’t sorted this problem out.

A study of Australian Football League players in Perth looked at the link between head knocks and depression. The study showed a correlation between these two occurrences. Nothing surprising there. In America in the early 2000’s, Dr Bennet Omalu found a direct link between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused by repetitive head knocks in football. CTE has being shown to cause issues such as cognitive and intellectual impairment, depression, drug abuse etc.

As a non footballer, why does this affect me? The study conducted in Perth found that within 2 weeks of a concussion 40% of players experienced depressive symptoms, with other players who experienced a significant head knock being 14% more likely to experience depressive symptoms.

Again, how does this affect me? The probability of depressive symptoms increases with players who took multiple blows in a 2 week period. This is where it affects me. I was 15 and playing hockey. I was selected for a talent development squad where I was going to learn all the finer skills I didn’t have. I could sprint, run long distances and was incredibly determined so it was just the skills I was holding out for.

I recall the first time I got hit, running into the circle I got knocked down by a ball flying at my forehead that the goalie had kicked. Not to be dramatic but I did cover distance. Hurt a lot, big egg on my head, lots of attention, blah, blah, blah…

The next week I was running into the circle, up against an ex Australian goalie. The exact same thing happened, on exactly the same egg that was there from last week. That bloody nob on my head to the ball was like the empire state building to lightning. Again I flew, and then went back to boarding school. This wasn’t a netball blow to the head, the “here if you need, here if you need, only if you really need”, trip you up and land with a gentle touch down on your pretty little butt. It was the, someone has thrown a ball size meteorite at close range straight at your head. Think Vin Diesel running into a building when a bomb goes off and he gets thrown backwards. Very similar.

The first night I remember feeling off, nauseous, dazed, detached. My first introduction to the ‘exploding head syndrome’ (EHS). (Please google this, it is real). Wiki says “a person hears loud imagined noises eg bomb exploding or experiences an explosive feeling when falling asleep or waking up.” My EHS experience when going to sleep, was a feeling of falling accompanied with a loud, persistent high pitched scream.

The next day I remember feeling like I wasn’t present, internally freaking out in English Lit class. We were talking about the protagonist of the novel who was an existentialist. We were not meant to identify with him but I gave a rambling speech about what a great bloke he was, the class went quiet…crickets. I got up and left. (My penchant for odd comments was there without the head injury, but it was a good excuse that time).

After that I lost all confidence. When I got into the circle the biggest sense of dread and fear overwhelmed me, leaving me hesitating and lost. I would tell myself over and over that this is what I wanted to do, but the invisible barrier was imposing and persistent and naturally won the mind game. I despised the game of hockey, quit the development squad and only played where competition was minimal and little was required of me.  Looking back it seems all very trivial and high school girlish, but at the time it created an identity problem. Enter the previously mentioned “Most Beautiful One of All” brother. We became very close and he taught me that I could obviously create any identity I wanted.

It’s all very middle class, private school girl tragedy. I struggled with my identity all because of a game about chasing a ball around the field. I mean, come on. Other adolescents struggle with their identity because a bomb wiped out their entire family, or they are sole carer of a parent with a chronic illness and playing sport is a luxury they will never experience. It’s all relative.

What I do find fascinating is those minute little incidences that change outcomes in our lives. It reminds me of being a kid, when you made a river in the dirt and created little barriers or off shoots to change the direction of the river. I could view the knocks to the head as being a gift, leading to the development of my relationship with my brother. Or, I could purely blame genetics, it wasn’t fated or bad luck, the ball was trying to clear me but my head was just too big.  Maybe it taught me the joy of being in a team and having each other’s back, relishing the beauty of a shared experience rather than how I’m going feed my ego.

Whatever greater meaning I’m trying desperately to cling to, it doesn’t take away the scary effects of these knocks to the head. Particularly worrisome is the effect that these knocks would have to be having on adolescents developing and fragile brains. It use to be that a knock to the head in football was all a part of the initiation process for boys becoming men, the harder the knock the harder it means you go in, the more respect. Not anymore.

emuThe shared experience of a team of ‘Emus’.

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