My concussion: Be nice to your brain
After a couple of hours of waiting in the ER, Liz gets an ice pack.
August 2nd, 2011
07:18 AM ET

My concussion: Be nice to your brain

Elizabeth Landau is a writer/producer for CNN.com. This is her story of recovering from a concussion.

I write about health issues every day but I honestly thought that concussions happened only to football, soccer and hockey players. Since kickball is the only sport I play competitively - and there's an obvious limit to how cut-throat an adult kickball game can be - I never considered that a serious head injury would happen to me.

But at kickball in mid-July, I was standing in my usual less-than-important position in right field when the other team's kicker sent the ball flying right toward me. Excited to be useful, I jumped to catch it. Unfortunately, so did one of my teammates, according to my friends who watched in horror.

They say we collided in mid-air, and the force of his body knocked me to the ground. But all I remember is seeing the ball, feeling pain, and suddenly struggling to breathe and speak.

After a few seconds I was able to tell everyone "I'm OK" and lift myself off the grass, with assistance. One of the refs came over and suggested I go to the hospital. I wasn't having trouble speaking or thinking, but I remembered that actress Natasha Richardson said she felt fine immediately after she fell while skiing, and died later of an epidural hematoma - when blood accumulates in the area between the lining of the brain and the skull - in 2009.

My friend Christina drove me to my apartment to grab my insurance card, and then to the hospital, where my boyfriend, David, met us. In the waiting room, I attempted but failed to even halfway finish a game of Sudoku on David's smartphone, and tried to read the Economist but can't really tell you which articles I read.

My head hurt and I was having a hard time concentrating on anything; as hours went by, I became increasingly annoyed that the ER staff did not seem to take my complaints of head injury seriously.

At around 12:30 a.m. I got to see a nurse practitioner, who tested my eyes and reflexes and sent me to get a CT of my head. Finally, at 2:30 a.m. one of the nurses told me that my CT was clear, and handed me a few printouts about what concussion means and how to treat it.

In the morning I further read up on concussions from such trusted websites as the MayoClinic, with a much different eye than if I had been writing an article about them. Apparently I had already violated the "don't use a computer" rule simply by looking up this advice. And I'm a 27-year-old with a high-intensity job and music projects on the side; telling me to "slow down" and take a rest from mental activities is like telling a mouse to not eat the cheese that's right in front of it. But I did end up sleeping for much of the day, with David working from my couch to make sure that I didn't develop more pain or other new symptoms. Admittedly I did use my computer to check Facebook, and appreciated the outpouring of support from friends who'd read my status message about my injury.

I consider myself extremely lucky that my injury was as mild as it was, but I've still experienced a bunch of little symptoms that I never used to associate with concussion. During that first week, anything that jarred my head in one direction or another - even nodding "yes" during a conversation or walking fast - made it hurt more. Riding Atlanta's subway for 20 minutes at a time made me nauseated (although some friends say that this is their normal experience).

So I've had to make some adjustments. Antihistamines are out because they'd make me exceedingly sleepy, so I have to make do with a stuffed nose. I tried watching a psychedelic laser light show at a planetarium recently, and couldn't keep my eyes on it for more than about 30 seconds before I thought I would vomit; no more big-screen action movies for a little while. And I'm not supposed to drive until my symptoms go away, lest I lose concentration or get distracted by lights.

It's hard not to stress out about inadvertently stressing my brain. Suddenly, I've had to take care of myself in a whole new way, which includes healthy habits I'd neglected before. I've had to make sure to get eight hours of sleep or more so that my head doesn't hurt as much. I've had to eat normal meals on a regular schedule, otherwise I feel weak, nauseated and unusually grumpy. Noises are louder and lights are brighter, so I've had to avoid ridiculously loud environments and make sure to wear sunglasses outside.

I take over-the-counter acetaminophen as a painkiller for my head since ibuoprofen and naproxen can increase the risk of bleeding. I worried about taking my scheduled flight to Oregon six days after the accident, but I didn't really feel increased pain or nausea during the ride there. Coming back was tougher because I'd bumped my head earlier that day, hadn't eaten well, and there was some turbulence. Doctors say concussion symptoms usually clear up in a matter of weeks to months after it happens.

My biggest fear is injuring my head again. After a person has had one concussion, it's extremely dangerous to have a second one before the brain has healed. If an athlete comes back to play too soon and gets a second head injury, it can result in something called second impact syndrome, a rare phenomenon that can lead to paralysis, epilepsy and even death.

Of course, head injuries can happen in non-athletic settings too. When I got into a cab Thursday, I hit my head on the door frame and panicked, but the impact wasn't that hard and my fears about losing consciousness made my body feel all the worse. But it was a wake-up call to be extra careful about keeping my brain healthy. I feel a whole new level of sympathy for the countless athletes and and non-athletes who have concussions happen to them - an estimated 300,000 concussions happen annually to professional, college, and high school football players alone. I wish everyone else out there with similar problems a smooth recovery.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.