In January 2013, 24-year-old Laura Fraser hit a tree while snowboarding at Fernie, British Columbia. Afterward, she felt a ringing in her ears that doctors attributed to a mild concussion, and within a few days she felt fine.
But then she had another, less traumatic fall in March 2014. That's when her life changed. Fraser became irritable, had difficulty concentrating, and experienced headaches that worsened with exertion. “It took me three times as long to do the things I used to do,” she recalls. Her local Nova Scotia doctors told her to avoid anything that provoked symptoms, but she didn’t recover. Instead, her mental focus became so poor that she had to drop out of school.
For decades, doctors have told concussed athletes like Fraser to rest, avoid bright lights, and limit activity. Having had one concussion places you at greater risk for another, they thought. But emerging science says that’s bunk: You can recover from a concussion, with active treatments that re-condition the injured parts of your brain.
Blame the NFL for perpetuating some of our concussion misperceptions. Highly publicized lawsuits between the NFL and former football players have raised public awareness about concussions, but they’ve also confused us. For example, concussions don’t automatically result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disabling neurodegenerative disorder blamed for the deaths of former football players Mike Webster and Junior Seau.
Players represented in the lawsuits maintain that the NFL concealed the dangers resulting from head injuries. But only recently have doctors developed effective concussion assessments and treatments. “Just ten years ago, the only way coaches knew to check for concussion was to ask athletes, ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’” explains Michael “Micky” Collins, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program. That era of ignorance perpetuated pervasive myths about concussions, such as the need to rest in a dark room or that having one concussion puts us at greater risk for another. (It doesn’t, says Collins.) “We’ve learned a tremendous amount about this injury, and the truth is not as bad as it’s made out to be,” he says. “The reality is, it’s a treatable injury.”