March 3, 2023

Many head injuries and concussions are preventable

Madison, Wis. – Traumatic brain injuries occur from a variety of causes and can have life-long consequences, but many are avoidable with simple precautions.

Head injuries are usually thought of as being sports-related but happen more often off the field or the court, according to Dr. Ben Gillespie, physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, UW Health, and clinical assistant professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

These types of head injuries are typically referred to as concussions. A concussion is a term for a mild form of traumatic brain injury that occurs when the head is in motion and stops abruptly causing the brain to impact the inside of the skull, and this can occur even if there is no blow to the head, he said.

“Symptoms can be different for each person who has a concussion,” Gillespie said, who is also the medical director of Acute Rehabilitation and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, UW Health. “Some people have mild or brief symptoms, and others experience more severe issues that can last for quite some time.”

From 2020 to 2022, UW Health treated about 968 people for diagnosed concussions in the emergency department, 525 were adults and 443 were children and adolescents.

Symptoms of concussion include imbalance, sensitivity to light, dizziness and blurry vision, but it can also impact mood and cause difficulty with concentration. A concussion can also worsen existing conditions like anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The most common cause of a concussion for people older than 75 and younger children is from a fall, while for people in their teens to early 20s it is motor vehicle crashes, according to Gillespie.

“In many of these cases, there are steps that can be taken to prevent a brain injury,” he said.

In his daily work, Gillespie cares for patients who have had a traumatic brain injury and require a hospital stay at the UW Health Rehabilitation Hospital, and a common reason for a patient to be in his care is not wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle, skateboard or skiing, he said.

“If people could see what I see every day, they would never get on a bike again without a helmet,” Gillespie said.

But, many falls can be prevented in less obvious ways. For people older than 75, making sure living spaces are cleared of clutter, that hallways have nightlights and that shoes are not left near doorways are good preventive measures, according to Gillespie.

Additionally, in the winter, keep sidewalks and driveways free of ice and snow, he said.
Because concussions do often happen when traveling by vehicle, make sure to always wear a seatbelt and ensure that a child is in the correct car seat for their size and the child is secured properly, Gillespie said.

In 2020, there were more than 64,000 deaths related to traumatic brain injury in the United States, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

“Without knowing the exact cause of all of these injuries, I do ask, ‘how many of them could have been prevented?’” Gillespie said.