Concussions are a fairly common type of head injury. Whether from a bad fall, car accident, or a fight that got out of hand, most of us have either experienced a concussion firsthand or know someone who has. Unfortunately, concussions are probably commonplace to the point that we don’t take them seriously enough.
Thanks to recent controversies surrounding brain injuries in the NFL, we’ve seen a significant acceleration in concussion research and awareness. Some NFL players have even risked their careers to advocate for medical marijuana, citing personal success in treating severe concussion symptoms. Outside the sports world, brain injury professionals have advocated for cannabis as an effective concussion treatment method. So what exactly is a concussion, and might cannabis be an effective treatment option?
Most of us think of a concussion as a simple heavy blow to the head, even though it’s far more than that. A concussion is clinically defined as an impact to the head that not only causes one to lose consciousness but experience a lapse in total brain function. Contact sports are just one of the most common causes (falls, motor vehicle collisions, and other direct strikes to the head), but they’re certainly the ones getting the most attention in the media.
Most concussions are temporary accidents, and they don’t produce any visible long-term effects. That’s why we hear the term “minor concussion” thrown around quite a bit. Most health professionals conclude that there’s really no such thing as a minor concussion. Yes, some concussions less severe than others, but every concussion is something to take very seriously.
In other words, the “mild” in mild traumatic brain injury (mtbi) shouldn’t be taken literally. What happens to the brain during and after a concussion should actually be quite alarming. If an impact strong enough to cause a concussion occurs, the brain is knocked against the side of the skull. This impact will often cause the brain to bruise, and may even tear nerve tissue when different parts of the brain are pushed at different speeds. Though the brain will often heal from these effects, it is also possible to sustain damage that permanently inhibits brain cell communication.
Symptoms of a Concussion
The most typical signs and symptoms of a concussion include:
Shaken balance and equilibrium
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
Headaches and migraines
Mild to severe loss of memory
All concussion symptoms will vary from case to case. If a concussion occurs when someone is older or has poor health, symptoms be more extreme. More recovery time may also be required. Patients who have already experienced a concussion are also more at risk of having a second one.
Perhaps no one is more at risk of experiencing multiple concussions than contact-sport athletes. Sports-related concussion research shows that concussions occur in American athletics roughly 300,000 times a year. American athletes also run a 19% annual risk of incurring a concussion. For college-level athletes, the risk is even greater.
Concussions are typically diagnosed in the emergency room, or through a simple interview/determination process. More elaborate diagnosis usually comes in the form of several clinical tests. Both neurological and cognitive testing is common for adults, and an innovative saliva test is in development to diagnose concussions in children.
Second-Impact and Post-Concussion Syndrome
Sometimes concussions develop into even more serious illnesses. When concussion symptoms continue in a patient beyond the standard two weeks, they may have Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS). PCS is far from life-threatening, but it can be quite painful. 50% of concussion cases in certain age groups develop into PCS. When a person has PCS, their symptoms can dramatically alter daily life. Work, school, and family life can all become unmanageable in the worst PCS cases.
Second Impact Syndrome (SIS) is another complication of concussions. It’s most commonly found in athletes and is characterized by excessive swelling and brain herniation after a second traumatic brain injury. Unlike PCS, Second Impact Syndrome can be life-threatening. SIS is significantly rarer than other concussion-related illnesses but can kill a young patient in a matter of minutes. Obviously, it’s important for emergency responders to be aware of SIS. It’s also important for the general public to be aware so they know just how serious a concussion can be.
Concussion and PCS Treatment
Almost nothing is more crucial to healing from a concussion than ample recovery time. Countless athletes end up returning to play too early after a concussion, and that’s where the risk of SIS or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) skyrockets. Other patients may feel that they’re too busy to put their life on hold for the amount of time necessary to make a full recovery. While concerns like these are certainly understandable (especially when symptoms become manageable after a few days), the importance of proper brain rest can’t be overstated when it comes to concussion recovery. Attention, concentration, memory, and all other aspects of cognition will benefit greatly from significant rest after a concussion. The brain also needs ample recovery time to heal from physical changes. Proper brain rest will also decrease the risk of emotional concussion symptoms like mood swings, irritability, and depression.
In addition to ample rest and other proactive forms of self-care, PCS patients will receive individualized treatment plans that address the most prominent symptoms in their case. Patients experiencing severe migraines will likely be prescribed headache medication, while those with lingering mental health symptoms will require antidepressants or psychotherapy.
Concussions and Cannabis
NFL football—by far the most popular sports organization in the U.S.—has garnered serious criticism, both from within and without, for placing their players at risk of debilitating head trauma. Concussion expert Bennet Omalu asserts that roughly 90% of NFL players have some form of CTE, a condition caused by repeated head trauma, resulting in memory loss and mood disorders.
Both player activism and public awareness have led to significant innovation in concussion treatment.
While other NFL players have come under fire for advocating medical cannabis, Morgan continues to speak out. In the medical world, Morgan is in good company. Brain injury specialists have found that cannabis may effectively treat concussions by reducing brain swelling and acting as a neuroprotectant. Cannabis has proven enormously successful as a natural anti-inflammatory. By reducing inflammation in the brain, cannabis may also reduce the risk of PCS and other prolonged concussion symptoms.
The Best Cannabis Products for Concussions
For concussion patients interested in cannabis-based treatment, cannabidiol (CBD) oil may be the safest bet. Frequently extracted from hemp, CBD oil is non-psychoactive and much more commonly legal. CBD is arguably the most medically valuable cannabis compound because of the way it interacts with the endocannabinoid system—bringing the body back to a place of homeostasis.
Patients who live in a medical marijuana state might want to consider a full cannabis strain. Though CBD can be effective on its own, it’s becoming more and more apparent that cannabis products with CBD and THC have a higher medicinal value. There are several cannabis strains out there with the potential to heal the brain after a concussion, or simply treat the most prominent symptoms.
If you or someone you know has suffered a concussion, be aware of the dangers involved and prioritize sufficient recovery time above all else. Should you decide to treat your concussion with cannabis, take note of your individual symptoms and thoroughly research which products are safe (and legal) for you to use.