Did High School Football Break Your Brain?

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The headlines are scary.

Another family talking about how big hits broke the brain of a former NFL star (remember Dave Duerson and Junior Seau?). Another guy who can’t tie his shoes or remember the way to the gas station. These stories always come with warnings for the kids now playing on Friday nights: concussions, if untreated, could damage their brains as adults. Yet no one talked much about head injuries when you played football (or soccer, or rugby, or any other contact sport). So if some games ended in a haze or a sharp pain causing you to cover your eyes…should you be worried?

The most important thing is to be honest with yourself, says Mickey Collins, M.D., the director of the Sports Medicine Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who has treated a number of NFL players. If your body and mind are giving you cause for concern, Collins said, you need to take this seriously. If it’s only the headlines, calm down. “If the person concerned about it isn’t impacted by symptoms, don’t worry about it,” Collins said. “Enjoy your life, stay fit, have fun with whatever recreational activities you’re into.”

Of the 25 patients Collins sees on an average day, 10 are asking about past injuries, many while dropping their kids off for an exam. Most of those men are fine, but not all of them. “One guy just said I haven’t been right since,” Collins said.

And while the media has paid a lot of attention to concussed kids and pros, there’s still a lot we don’t understand. Collins called the research on who’s at risk for long-term effects of concussions a “weak and young science.” In the meantime, though? Here’s everything you need to know to assess—and treat—any possible damage.

Spot trouble.

If you start having memory or focus issues, balance problems, migraines or other headaches, or sensitivity to light or noise, pay attention—past concussions could explain them. Some men only feel the nausea, headaches and dizziness when they work out. That could be related to past concussions too. Tell your doctor about your hard-knock history, even if you don’t know how many head injuries you might have suffered. To get better, you might need to see a concussion specialist, so if your doctor is dragging his or her feet on a referral— or doesn’t seem to be taking your concussion history seriously —be your own advocate. “The most important thing is getting it looked at and evaluated by a clinician that knows what they’re doing,” says Collins says. “Concussion management is a fast evolving science and there are a limited number of places that really specialize in this.”

Don’t assume the worst.

There’s a perception that all concussion damage is permanent, but that’s not true anymore, says Collins. There are limits to what doctors can do about the most severe injuries, like the dementia diagnosis that some former players are suing the NFL over. But, Collins says, doctors are developing new ways to treat the more common symptoms. Using a combination of physical and visual therapy, they can re-train the brain to process head and eye movement for men who have problems with balance and spatial orientation. Visual therapy can ease blurry vision. And something called exertion therapy—reacclimating your brain and body to exercise—can help you get back to the gym if working out (see above) has been painful.

Take every hit seriously.

If your buddy pops you playing flag football in the park this weekend and you’re suffering, don’t be a dummy. Headaches, nausea, light sensitivity, sleep issues, blurry vision or problems focusing or remembering can all be signs of a concussion that needs treatment. “Doctors might not have understood how to treat your a concussion when you were a junior in high school,” Collins said. “But too many men getting concussions still act like those high school juniors when it comes to getting treated.” So see a doctor, and get to a specialist. They will give you an ImPACT test—just like the pros—or a similar assessment to determine how badly you’ve been hurt. Then they’ll develop a recovery plan to get you back on the field. If not treated, concussions can drag down your work and social life—but proper therapy will shorten the amount of time you’ll have to live with the effects of the big hit.

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