What I Learned From My Own Kid's Concussion

Here's what happened when mTBI happened to us.

Post-mTBI, rest is essential
Tom Sperduto / Aurora / Getty Images

I consider myself pretty well informed about concussion (aka mild traumatic brain injury, or mTBI). I've written extensively about mTBI for this site. I've attended conferences, dug into scientific research, and interviewed top experts.

And yet, my own child's concussion was still an eye-opener. Here's what surprised me.

1. The symptoms are sneaky. After the initial incident—which, ironically, did not involve sports—my daughter mentioned a headache and also nausea and fatigue.

I failed to connect the dots since we were on vacation, the weather was very hot, our routine was different, and so on. Even after the diagnosis, I felt confused. Does her head hurt because of the concussion, or because she's worried about missing school, or because she isn't being distracted by her normal activities?

2. Rest REALLY matters. Since the concussion happened while we were on vacation, and (see above) we didn't catch on to what had happened, we kept going at a very busy pace. On the third day after the incident, my daughter felt too weak and ill to walk and needed a wheelchair.

3. The injury truly is invisible. We allowed our daughter to do too much, too soon after her concussion, in part because we didn't realize that she was still experiencing symptoms. And even with my knowledge about concussion, I felt doubtful: Could this all be connected to that one bump on the head, weeks before?

I wish I had made more clear to my child that she needed to keep us informed about her symptoms. And I wish I had taken them more seriously early on.

4. Recovery is slow and frustrating. After the mTBI was finally diagnosed by a physician's assistant, we began the recovery process in earnest. This meant complete physical and cognitive rest, or, as the PA described it, utter boredom: "If you're not totally bored, you're doing too much." This is very challenging for both the patient and everyone around her!

All she could do was sleep and cuddle with our dogs. After a few days, she tolerated some gentle activities, including baking and listening to books read aloud.

5. Healthy habits can help. Using over-the-counter medications to treat pain is acceptable after mTBI, but these didn't work for my kid. We stopped using them and focused on sleep (lots of sleep!), hydration (lots of water!), and nutritious foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, spinach, and flax seeds. Of course, you should follow your doctor's advice on this; ours recommended the fatty fish diet.

6. School staff might surprise you. My daughter missed three full days of school, then returned on a shortened schedule: Afternoon classes one day, morning classes the next, avoiding the noise and chaos of the lunchroom. Since the injury happened at the beginning of the academic year, in a school that was new to both of us, I didn't know what to expect when I called in her repeated absences. But even before we had the medical excuse in hand, the school was very accommodating.

Clearly, and sadly, the staff is used to dealing with mTBIs among the student population.

I thought I was being careful and conservative about concussion prior to this incident. Now, if either of my kids gets hurt again, I will be much better prepared to respond. I just hope I don't have to.

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