Criterium racing has always been a favorite of mine in the world of competitive cycling. The speed, the adrenaline and the social atmosphere appeals to me. I love sprinting and I love spending time with my fellow cycling peeps. However: there’s an uncertain side to competitive cycling. The darker side of injury. Multiple concussions have reshaped my life. Even eight months after a significant concussion I have to admit that I’m not sure I will ever be the same again.
One minute, I was successfully tucked in the pack speeding around the corner coming into a Prime Sprint with the Women’s 3/4 and Junior’s Criterium Race.
The next minute, I was on the ground not sure why I was there or what day it was. One thing I DID know: this was NOT a good thing.
Even though I was cleared in the ER of any obvious signs of brain injury: brain swelling started later that night and the recovery took what felt like years. I took almost two months off from any work. In fact, I have to admit that I’m not recovered yet. I get mentally exhausted more easily. My eyes no longer compensate for the difference in focus when I’m tired. I have a long, careful journey of recovery to complete in order to cross THIS finish line.
The Impact of Concussions
Bad pun aside, concussions are serious business. Anyone that rides a bike (any bike) without a helmet is an organ donor candidate. I’m not joking. I’ve cracked three helmets in my life. My husband has two of them as ‘show and tell’ for Safety Minutes at work. Yay me. Concussions add up over time and the more you have the more severe the repercussions. Just because you get cleared from the ER doesn’t mean you are going back to work the next day and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be on red alert status for at least 72 hours.
Concussion effects vary and I’m not a doctor, so please consult a licensed physician if you have taken a fall and hit your head. From my experience I can say that you may feel disoriented, dizzy, easily confused, slightly ‘out of it’ or disconnected, your ears may ring and you might feel sleepy. Whatever you do: do NOT go to sleep until you have seen a doctor! DO NOT drive. I drove after my first concussion and that was NOT the smartest thing I’ve done. Do not take pain medications, alcohol, sedatives or any narcotics until after you have been cleared by a doctor to do so.
A friend asked what it felt like to have a concussion. After some thought I replied: “It’s like having permanent sleep deprivation for the first couple of weeks.”
What to Expect
Over the coming week, depending on severity of the concussion, expect that your brain will need to heal. Brains heal best when they are sleeping (after you’ve gotten the OK from the doc). Our bodies are amazing organic machines and our brains are even more complex. Most of our conscious ‘processing’ is absorbed in visual engagement. In other words: reading, watching TV or looking at a computer screen is probably not going to work well for a concussion victim. I mostly slept for about a week after my last concussion.
Your brain might shut you down. If the brain gets tired you go to sleep. This is how the brain heals itself so please don’t fight it. Allow your body to rest. You only have one brain and we don’t grow damaged brain cell back quite like lizard tails.
How to Heal Well
Healing from a concussion can be summarized in one word: PATIENCE. I do not possess a ton of patience therefore this process has been educational. If you are lucky you can be up and running in no time. If not: expect that this process may take up to a year. I have finally come to grips with the fact that I am in the latter category even after not being able to work for almost two months. During those months: I couldn’t focus, forget multitasking, I wasn’t as creative (if at all) and I had trouble thinking through complex concepts. If I pushed myself my ears would start ringing, my head would hurt and my brain would simply shut down.
Looking back I understood that the only reason I wasn’t scared to death is because I knew there wasn’t much I could do but take care of myself and be patient.
Coming Back to Reality
After I took my two month sabbatical I thought that I was at least 98% healed. Little did I know that I was only really about 85% through the healing process. I felt so much better after being totally unplugged after an epic road/biking trip on my sabbatical. I came back, hit the ground running, my business took off and I didn’t look back ….
But, it’s not over yet.
Late at night two weeks ago I pushed back from my desk to find that my eyes literally wouldn’t focus anymore and my ears were ringing. I knew I had been pushing myself hard to meet deadlines and take care of my business. What I didn’t realize was that I was doing damage to my recovering brain. This week, it finally hit home. Concussions have reshaped my life.
As an avid cyclist I can say that I have been blessed that the injury didn’t slow me down physically. It’s a welcome relief to be on the bike, hiking or practicing yoga. My brain can go on autopilot and rest. Increasing fresh blood flow helps the healing process. The problem has been that I’m not giving my brain enough variation and as many breaks throughout the day as it needs to heal well. If I don’t become more disciplined about allowing my brain to rest I may do permanent damage!
The Progress Plan
Concussions or not: our brains need rest from long periods of work. Don’t expect to sit at your desk and work for 9 hours solid with minimal breaks. Constant stress on the same part of your brain can be taxing and exponentially so if you are recovering from a concussion. Multitasking can also be harmful. Confusing ‘breaks’ with simply doing something else, like checking your Facebook account (for example) doesn’t help.
- BRAIN BREAKS: It’s critical to refocus on something that requires a different part of the brain. Those 15 minute ergonomic breaks that they push on employees are actually important. Take a stretch every 1-2 hours. Walk around, grab a coffee, or even better – go ask someone a question instead of emailing. Not only are you giving yourself a break you are also building connections with others.
- AVOID MULTITASKING: Multitasking used to be considered a fabulous skill. I know that I prided myself at being an excellent multitasker when I was younger. Thanks to genuine research on the topic it has been discovered that this exercise is actually HARMFUL. Scientists have found that constant switching between tasks that use the same part of the brain can lower an IQ by as much as 10 points during the multitasking period. If this behavior is maintained it may cause PERMANENT DAMAGE … Even if you have a healthy brain!
- SET EXPECTATIONS: While you are recovering from a concussion, don’t be alarmed that you simply cannot get as much work completed during a day. The effect of concussions can be directly related to the part of the brain that was concussed. Mental processing can become more taxing and may be slower than normal. Allow yourself extra time.
- BE AWARE: Your body will send signals if you push it too hard. Cyclists are great at pushing through pain but when it comes to your brain: DON’T DO IT. Headaches, dizziness, slight nausea, lack of appetite, ringing in your ears all may signal mental exhaustion. Get rest and allow your body to heal. You cannot push the healing process.
Concussions Have Reshaped My Life
I have started a new self-management plan to help my body heal well. I have accepted that this is not going to be a 3 month completion event but something that will take time. The more concussions you have, the longer the recovery and more serious the effects can become. I’m doing what I can to give myself breaks, not work 10-12 hours a day and build in healthy exercise time. It’s challenging because, as my mother says, I’m a chronic workaholic.
As much as I love to sprint I am seriously rethinking my strategy moving forward. I have many scars from injuries and I am missing part of my finger from bike racing / riding. Nothing set me back like this concussion has. I’m very good at driving myself hard and holding high expectations. However: it might be time for me to take a deep whiff of reality and set the right priorities in place for a continued healthy future.
I don’t know what the next chapter holds for me outside of my love of riding bikes and being outdoors. Time will tell. For all of you that have either had or are experiencing a concussive event: heal well my friends.
See You On the Road!