Listen to Your Mom; Protect Your Brain

Most people can probably remember at least one occasion when they received one of the classic canned parenting speeches about wearing a helmet: “If all of your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you go too?” or “You think a helmet doesn’t look cool? You know what else doesn’t look cool? Brain damage.”

This is one of those many cases where, as much as it pained the depths of your teenaged soul, your parents were right.

Let’s say you don’t listen to your mother. So, your teenaged self goes out for a high-speed bike ride without a helmet. (Sort of understandable, as the portion of your brain that influences things like your conception of your own mortality isn’t fully formed). You’re cruising along, probably trying to take a bike selfie or something, and you hit a parked car.

Due to physics, the energy transfers through everything that was moving – the car stops your bike’s motion, the ground stops your motion and your skull stops your brain’s motion.

Depending on how hard the stop was, your brain can end up bruised, leaving you concussed.

The Facts

The CDC estimates that 2.5 million people visited the emergency room in 2010 due to traumatic brain injuries. Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can range from a mild concussion resulting in a brief change in mental state, to days of mental fogginess and confusion, to life-altering – or even life-ending – brain damage.

Brain injuries are the leading cause of disability and death in adolescents and children in the United States, though risk of hospitalization and death goes down with age until around 65. Head injuries are particularly lethal in children under three, and at that age are most likely to be caused by abuse or by accident.

The Research

Recently, brain injuries have been in the spotlight as experts study the long-term effects of brain damage in retired NFL players and soldiers returning from combat. In particular, recent links have been drawn between repeated concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease that has caused the premature deaths of many retired NFL players. As CTE destroys the brain, patients experience depression, dementia and behavior changes. In some cases, the effects are so extreme that they drive people to suicide.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the emerging evidence that it doesn’t take the extreme hits to cause damage. Professional football players, for example, take about 1,500 hits to the head per season, but only one or two of those might cause a concussion. Researchers have recently found that these sub-concussive hits to the head – ones that don’t cause a diagnosable concussion – are enough to cause changes to the brain. This is especially concerning news for young kids just getting into contact sports like football and hockey.

What’s Being Done

While it’s impossible to navigate a world of low ceilings, sharp-cornered coffee tables and glass doors without bonking your head at least a few times, as scientists continue to raise awareness of the long-term effects of head injuries, hospital visits have gone up – which is actually a good thing. This means more people are paying attention, recognizing the signs and symptoms of concussions and taking action. For athletes in particular, there’s emerging helmet technology that aims to help prevent sports-related injuries – including new helmet shapes and impact monitors that clip onto helmets and keep track of how hits have been incurred. Additionally, many colleges and high schools now require athletes to take yearly cognitive tests to monitor for baseline brain function and detect any issues early.

Concussions aren’t entirely preventable, but knowing the signs and symptoms can help in determining when it’s okay to stay home and rest with ice and when it’s time to see a healthcare provider.

And, when it comes to protecting your head, listen to your mom.

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