Of my concussion symptoms, headache was the most dominant and persistent. From the time of the incident to roughly 1,000 days later, the headache was always there. Sometimes it manifested as overall pressure in my head, sometimes at the front, back, or sides of my head. Sleep was the only brief respite from the pain. In the first few months of my concussion recovery, the headache was so dominant that I barely noticed my other symptoms. Later, it was still there every day but was tolerable. Until one day, over three years after my injury, I realized I didn’t have a headache. It had disappeared while I was focusing on living my life.
The headache still visits on occasion, triggered by a combination of factors including poor posture/ ergonomics, stress, fatigue, lack of food, and changes in barometric pressure. When headache visits, it is often accompanied by neck pain. These two symptoms come and go, but always are a reminder of the concussion I suffered on March 27, 2011.
I was playing indoor soccer in the Women’s Tier IV Provincials. It was the bronze medal game. As an opponent moved towards our goal, I stepped in to defend. At that moment the attacker shot the ball. It struck me in the face and snapped my head back and to the side. Eager to prevent any further scoring chances, my determined and damaged brain kept me in the game. We lost.
On the nine hour bus ride from Grande Prairie back to Calgary, I felt terrible. I attributed this to the bumpy roads. “Rationalizing” or “thinking logically” when concussed is problematic. Evidence of this is that I felt terrible, but still went to work for two weeks before realizing I had a concussion. I finally realized that my symptoms were similar to when I had suffered another concussion years prior. I didn’t see a doctor for another week after that.
I should have been resting, but I kept to my usual routine. I felt nauseated while driving to work. I felt in a fog as I went through my day while working for eight hours on a computer while under harsh fluorescent lighting. Then I went home. Since I felt gross and didn’t want to do anything, I watched several hours of TV every night. I pretty much did everything you shouldn’t do while recovering from a concussion.
Once I finally went to my doctor, she advised me to try to work a bit less. A few weeks later, after failed attempts to cram eight hours of work into six hours, I went back to my doctor. I was then asked if my neck hurt. It did. However, I said it didn’t. The logic of my damaged brain was this: I’d started wearing glasses recently, and felt that any neck soreness must be from holding my head differently. It made sense to me at the time, regardless of how silly it seems in retrospect.
Still, the doctor felt my neck and determined it was tight. Her recommendation was to stretch it periodically. I saw a massage therapist about five or six times. She started treating my neck and jaw. This helped a bit, but mainly caused my symptoms to flare up.
A third visit to my doctor yielded the recommendation that I go see a physiotherapist who deals with head injuries. So I booked an assessment with a physiotherapist specializing in vestibular issues. I found out that in addition to the headache, neck pain, jaw pain, difficulty concentrating, nausea, sensitivity to light, feeling in a fog etc., I also had balance issues. Given the legion of symptoms afflicting me, it had evidently escaped my notice that I couldn’t walk in a straight line.
The treatments included exercises to retrain my vestibular system as well as massage and needling (similar to acupuncture). Already some three to four months after my concussion, I was finally seeing improvement. Yet I continued to work full time but still did not exercise. The lack of endorphins, diminished social interaction and general misery of massive headaches and other symptoms made me depressed – something I didn’t fully realize or address until quite late in my recovery.
When my recovery started to slow, my physiotherapist referred me to a sports medicine doctor. He was the first to have me complete the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT), which made me realize the sheer number of symptoms I had. A couple of different drugs lessened the pain a bit. Bilateral facet injections (a combination of cortisol and anesthetic) in either side of my neck also helped some. A MRI and X-Ray showed nothing of concern.
Finally, in January 2012, the sports doctor had me take time off of work. I’d essentially been working full time for the previous nine months. One month off work turned into three. Removed from the constant glow of the computer screen and fluorescent lights, this rest had the greatest impact on reducing my symptoms. I gradually returned to work, but it took me a year until I was back full time.
Still some symptoms persisted, notably the aforementioned headache. Out of ideas, the sports doctor referred me to Calgary’s Headache Assessment and Management Program. After reviewing my file, they determined I’d be better served by the Chronic Pain Centre (CPC). While I waited two months to get into the program, I started some laser therapy. While I’m still uncertain about the efficacy of lasers in promoting healing, the manual therapy certainly helped address some neck/ head tightness and posture issues.
Through the CPC I accessed courses on pain management, nutrition, and I also utilized the services of a physiotherapist. While I wasn’t sure I needed more of this therapy, the approach provided was helpful in further alleviating my pain. At that time, I’d been gradually returning to soccer. I played parts of two seasons, but I got hit in the head multiple times. The effects of these incidents weren’t long lasting, but still a concern. In early 2014 I’d already decided to retire from soccer, but was going to finish the season. Then I got hit in the head again on January 18, 2014. That was immediately my last game; I realized it wasn’t worth it to continue.
Throughout the process of deciding to retire, I worked with a psychologist at the CPC to deal with the loss of soccer, my sport of choice for over 20 years. While at the end of my two year stint at the CPC, I still had chronic headaches, but held out hope for a headache free future. At the second and final meeting with my neurologist at the CPC, he said he felt confident that the headaches would go away. And so they did.
Each treatment chipped away at my insanely long list of symptoms.
While the risks of playing soccer made me choose to retire, I’m still active and do karate. Yes, I did get a couple concussions doing this, but I recovered fully within a month and I’m working on keeping myself safe. The hardest thing to do whenever I experience a setback is to acknowledge it and take the necessary time to recover. I go straight to denial and paranoia. My family helps keep me on track and do the things I know I need to do to recover properly.
As with any life experience, the concussion, whiplash, vestibular imbalance etc. left their mark on me, but they couldn’t beat me down.
I won the long game.