T his past September I finally acquiesced to an amusement park trip to celebrate my daughter’s birthday.  (She’s been asking for years.)  I drove nearly 200 miles with two giggling tweens in the backseat.  They had a blast, naturally; I attempted to keep up with them.  I bought us all sweatshirts and rain ponchos and tried to ignore the downpour.  They barely noticed it was wet.  

Three days later, I waited with my head in my hands in emergency department in Connecticut, silently imploring everyone around me to whisper.  My visit turned into an eight-hour odyssey that resulted in two Cat scans.  Thankfully, it turned out I was ok.  Diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome, I was discharged and sent home with a terrible headache that gradually abated over the next week.

It took me far too long to seek help, however, because I attributed my headache to a myriad of causes.  I assumed I had eaten too much junk food at the amusement park, and I knew I hadn’t slept well in the hotel room.  I theorized that being spun and tilted and turned upside down for hours on end had left me feeling weak and exhausted.  On top of that, the drive home was arduous, and I was trapped between numerous 18-wheelers spewing rain mist.  Conclusion: massive headache.  

What I managed to ignore completely was that smack to my head as I was being whipped back and forth on one of the rides.  Nobody gets a concussion on a roller coaster I told myself, so it must have been one of the other factors.  

Of course the bottom line is that I was completely wrong, and a simple Google search using the words “concussion roller coasters” turned up several stories regarding G-forces, injuries and, tragically, deaths.  But more importantly, I had violated my own first rule of fitness: push through the discomfort, but stop at the pain.  This wasn’t a stitch in my side, or an ache in my shoulder, this was blinding head pain.  It grew the next day and the next, and I convinced myself still that I could resolve it alone.  I drank tons of water to cleanse my system, I tried Aikido breathing exercises (see the “fitness at your desk” section for meditative breathing), and I slept.  Well, yes, I slept soundly in the middle of the day because I had a concussion!

Ignoring serious head pain is like ignoring difficulty breathing.  You are not going to work through a heart attack on your own.  Nobody should ignore head trauma either.  

I learned several important facts as a result of this experience.  Many of them I already knew, but I was clearly willing to ignore, so they bear repeating.  First, you don’t need need to be knocked out to sustain a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (www.aans.org) states specifically, “in many cases a person with a concussion never loses consciousness” (emphasis mine).  Second, you can get a TBI from just a whiplash-type injury, without ever striking your head.  Third, even mild TBIs (and some people argue there is no such thing) should not be taken lightly.  The Mayo Clinic cautions people concerned with TBI’s to look for specific symptoms including, headaches, and problems with concentration, memory, balance and coordination.  The AANS also advises an injured person should be observant for, “vision disturbances, nausea, sensitivity to light, ringing ears, and a loss of smell ar taste.”

Instead of listening to my practically screaming at me body, I went to teach a class.  And for just a quick second, with the fluorescent lights and the loud music, and the clock reflecting backwards in the mirror, I forgot where I was.  That was when I realized I was in serious trouble.  As I think back, I am seething at my own stupidity.  Being a fitness instructor and black belt, I thought I could conquer the pain.  

The human body will only tolerate arrogance for so long, and mine finally shut down.   Sadly, I know I’m not alone because the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) says an estimated 1.7 million people sustain a TBI annually, and about 75% of TBIs that occur each year are concussions or other forms of mild traumatic brain injury.  Worse, “rates of traumatic brain injury-related Emergency Department visits increased for all age groups from 2001-2010.”  The good news is that most people sit squarely in my camp: they are checked out and sent home.  Still roughly 275,000 end up hospitalized, and about 52,000 die.  So, maybe, not such good news for everyone.  

The most important take-away for me is not to ignore burning pain in my body.  Most athletes do not like to admit weakness, and none of us truly enjoy getting older, but it is foolish to pretend pain isn’t there when it clearly is.  As a youth, like all of us, I heard “play through the pain,” from every gymnastic, field hockey, and track and field coach I ever had.  It was simply the mantra of the times.  Today, I know better.  Play through the discomfort, sure, and play through the sweat in your eyes, and the aches in your body, and the soreness in your muscles, but do not ignore the pain.