Keep your head in the game

This MRI of Kelsey Magill’s brain was used by doctors to determine the extent of her injury in 2010. | image courtesy of Kelsey Magill

by Kelsey Magill

I planted my feet and braced for the hit. Her weight pushed me hard and fast. My head swung back quickly, pulling the muscles around my throat, slamming my skull into the hardwood floor of the basketball court. I opened my eyes to my teammates leaning over me asking if I was OK. My head throbbed and my body seemed disconnected from my mind, slow and shaky, like it wouldn’t do what I was telling it to. That was November 2010, and though I didn’t know it then, I’d just suffered my third concussion; my first while playing recreation basketball in the Yellowknife women’s league. The injury changed my life and, nearly four years later, I continue to live with its aftermath every day.

Concussions are not just the lament of rich and famous pros. They happen to recreational athletes too. Anna Reid, an emergency physician at Stanton Territorial Hospital, says although specific stats for sports-related concussions are not available, she sees it “fairly frequently.”

Throughout my six years playing basketball, I had had my fair share of injuries: a sprained ankle, a broken finger, bruises, scratches and a fingernail in the eye. I didn’t just receive these battle scars—I gave them too. I wasn’t afraid to be a controlled, but aggressive player.

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I wasn’t surprised to find aggressive players in the women’s recreation league here in Yellowknife, and was enthused that I’d be playing with competitive women who shared my love for the game. A few games in, I began to notice some reckless aggression—scrappy play, careless hits and fouls, friends on other teams getting knocked out with concussions—that is sometimes the result of overeager, inexperienced players. Then, that November, I took the hard hit. Like many athletes, I sat on the bench for a minute to clear my head and regain my strength before re-entering the game. When I awoke the next morning with a throbbing headache and dizziness, I called my mom in Ontario, struggling to even talk. She urged me to head to the emergency room.

That visit sparked months of seeing different doctors in town due to persistent concussion symptoms. One doctor sternly told me that a concussion is a very serious injury. He encouraged me to take it easy and avoid all activities that could cause me to reinjure. My injury was easy to diagnosis but there seemed to be very little doctors could do, other than prescribe painkillers for my headaches. I went to Edmonton for an MRI and received occupational therapy at Stanton Medical Health Centre to help with my memory loss and organizational skills. After a year and a half, I was still suffering with throbbing headaches and dizziness and with no further understanding of my injury. My parents and I decided to see Dr. Michele Gagnon, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in Ottawa who has extensive training in neuropsychology, neurology, psychiatry and evidence-based treatments.

Dr. Gagnon describes sports-related concussions as mild traumatic brain injuries. Not all concussions lead to a loss of consciousness. After a blow to the head, the brain changes shape very quickly and bumps against the skull. There is a temporary disruption of normal electrical activity, the neuro-fibers become stretched and damaged. When I fell back against the hardwood, my brain bounced hard on the back of my skull and accelerated toward the front. Symptoms can be a result of the brain swelling, or broken and damaged axons; there is a disruption in the transmission of information.

“Concussions affect attention, reaction time, memory, organizational and planning skills,” says Dr. Gagnon. “Because of the deficits, some athletes find that they are not able to focus and comprehend new information presented in class or at work.” She says some athletes will suffer with symptoms for a week or two, while other concussions can take up to one month of physical rest before the athlete is able to return to their pre-concussion level of activity. Other athletes, like me, suffer from post-concussion syndrome, where the symptoms last for months or even years and can include headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light and noise, fatigue, difficulty focusing, irritability and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. The Brain Injury Association of Waterloo reports that traumatic brain injury occurs in 500 out of 100,000 individuals in Canada every year. One in five sport-related injuries are head injuries.

My symptoms were intense and with little knowledge on how to improve, I participated in activities that hindered my healing. What I should have been doing is complete cognitive rest for at least one week: no texting, emailing, TV, physical activity or work. Dr. Gagnon says sleeping and relaxing are the most important factors in recovery, and warns that returning too soon to a sport will prevent the brain from healing, meaning the symptoms could last longer.

Yellowknifer Rob Waddell suffered a debilitating concussion in January 2013 playing in a recreational hockey league. He too continued to play after a rough hit to the chin, a mistake Dr. Gagnon says one in three concussed players makes in a game. Waddell said he felt all the blood in his body drop into his feet and he was extremely dizzy.

His injury left him helpless and immobile. The 38-year-old spent days in his dark bedroom alone, plagued with extreme dizziness and fatigue, rising only to help his wife with dinners and put their kids to bed. As a father of three children, it pained Waddell not be able to play with them, but even low-key activities like cards or watching TV set his recovery back. Over the course of the following year, he gave up all intense physical and mental activity. If he wasn’t careful, too much of either would trigger his symptoms. Waddell has made significant improvements by listening to his body and being patient with his symptoms.

Concussions have historically been somewhat of a medical mystery — each one is unique. In recent years, the injuries have gained media attention thanks in part to coverage of professional athletes’ afflictions. I suffered my concussion just two months before Sydney Crosby’s blow during the New Year’s Day Winter Classic in Pittsburg. I followed the coverage of his progress and envied the chiropractic neurology treatments he was receiving to speed up his recovery. I grew obsessed with researching concussions in sport, desperately hoping to give my recovery an end date. I wanted to warn my friends and family of the risks involved with head injuries. I didn’t want them to have to give up activities they love, like I did.

When I look back on that game, I reacted how I was taught to and would do so again, planting my feet and taking the charge. That’s part of basketball, no matter what league you’re in. There are roughly 2,500 recreational athletes in Yellowknife, playing everything from soccer to co-ed volleyball to football. Yellowknife has more rec teams on offer than other cities of its size. It’s not just a passion for the game that drives the players, but the opportunity to socialize and meet new people. Those aren’t things most people want to give up, nor should they.

We all take risks every day. I played recreation basketball for fun; I never expected it would keep me from working full-time, from running or from riding a rollercoaster. I live my active life one day at a time. I try not to think about if I’ll ever waterski or play football again, or the damage another accident may cause. I can get up and go work and challenge myself mentally without painful symptoms. I have chosen to focus on low impact sports like cycling or swimming. It is painful to miss out on the things I once loved to do but I’m grateful to be where I am today. I hope that sharing my story will encourage readers, specifically athletes and parents, to educate themselves on the risks of concussions.


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