There is a lesson to be learned for all of us from football. After years of claiming dramatic head blows were just part of the game, the devastation of repeated hits has finally become clear. Reality is even harder to ignore when you realize that hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller collisions in a player’s career can be equally crippling.
The story of what has happened to many NFL veterans plays out dramatically in the new movie, Concussion. As many as one-of-three of our Sunday afternoon heroes are living in a fog. Some have memory lapses. Others were lost in emotional rages. The most tragic committed suicide.
Clearly, most of us will never get near a football field, but we take a similar risk getting behind the wheel of our cars. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says every year nearly 300,000 traumatic brain injuries result from car crashes. The human head is as poorly equipped to handle the impact of a 30-mph traffic accident as when a 300 pound lineman slams into Aaron Rodgers.
The symptomatology from a head injury in a car crash is virtually identical to its football equivalent. Fatigue, memory loss, and agitation. Much in the same way football players were told to just “shake it off,” think about your circle of friends and family who may have dismissed a minor car accident as no big deal.
Cars, like football helmets, are safer now than they were a generation ago. Air bags, anti-lock brakes, and even self-steering cars have changed the way we drive, but we humans are still not only imperfect, but fragile.
The circle grows even larger when we include elderly parents who may be at risk for a fall or even someone who takes a spill on the ice. It is far too easy to miss symptoms of a more serious head injury. Physics are still physics. If you hit the human head hard enough, regardless of how much protection there is, you will get hurt. Perhaps badly.
Football changed because a group of brave players, and one pathologist, played brilliantly by Will Smith in Concussion, stood up both to the system and the peer pressure to be tougher than the next guy. As part of a settlement, the league agreed to fund an unrestricted $30 million dollar study of head injuries. Progress, even incrementally, is still progress.
Wisconsinites spend about an hour a day in the car. We also know that every day some 800 people will end up with a head injury from a car accident. The gulf between “safe” and “safer” is still too wide.
In the end, it’s up to each of us to stay safe by marking our smartest decisions. Head injuries, even minor ones are hard to diagnose, and are often missed at the time of the initial injury. Warning signs of a head injury can run the gauntlet from headaches to memory loss and moodiness to depression to dizziness.
It’s frustrating because there is no one thing to watch for as a sign of a problem. But the universal precaution we can all take, even when there is the slightest doubt about a possible head injury is to resist the pressure to tell anyone to ever just “shake it off.”