28 year-old male rugby player

I’m a 28 year old rugby player. I started playing rugby in grade 9 and quickly fell in love with the game. I loved the challenge, intensity, camaraderie, and social aspects of the game. I trained very hard and found myself selected for provincial and national junior teams as a student, and eventually moved on to play at university . At this time I moved into senior rugby, where I had the honour to play on Canada’s National Senior Men’s team for 6 years, including the 2007 Rugby World Cup.  Rugby has taken me around the world, where I’ve made the best of friends, and had the ability to compete in a sport at the highest level.  I had my share of injuries, but was always able to make a full recovery in a reasonable amount of time.

In September of 2011, this all changed. While playing in a national championship game for my Ontario team I suffered a major concussion while making a tackle in the opening moments of the game. At the time I thought this was my first concussion, as this was the first time I had to leave the game due to dizziness, lack of coordination, etc. I left the field and watched from the sidelines, and after about 20min I started to feel better, fully aware of where I was, no memory problems, and feeling totally alert and normal. I thought this meant I hadn’t suffered much of an injury, and I would be back playing again in a week or two.

After feeling fine for 4 days I decided to go for a run where I also felt normal. A few minutes after I stopped however, I developed a splitting headache. This headache didn’t leave for 8 weeks. It was aggravated by exercise, and especially anything that required concentration such as reading, driving, watching TV, and working. I was forced to take 5 weeks off my work as a high school teacher to try to recover. During this time I developed a state of anxiety over if I’d ever play rugby again, if I’d ever work again, could I do the things I used to do and love? I was forced to cut out other areas of my life including socializing, coaching, other physical activities, as these all made my symptoms worse.

I got a variety of reactions from people. Some people were very supportive and glad that I was taking time off, telling me that I’d had a good rugby career and it’s time to move on. Others seemed unaware of how serious my condition was, and that I’d be back playing in no time. A few of my teammates seemed to become distant, as if a concussion was contagious and if they got too close, they would also get one – perhaps they were just scared and didn’t want to hear about it.

With the injury of Sidney Crosby happening in the same time frame of my own I think it also affected my experience. His injury obviously brought a heightened awareness to the issue which seemed to make things easier for me in terms of people being sympathetic, but it also left me at the mercy of a bombardment on questions on the topic – something that seemed to make my anxiety worse.

Now 5 months out, I’m happy to say that my symptoms have improved greatly. I no longer get headaches, and am back to work, exercising, and doing most of the things I used to do with no problems at all. A combination of rest and treatments including cranial-sacral therapy and acupuncture helped me a lot.

This has left me with the dilemma if I should try to play rugby again. I still love the game incredibly, and miss playing every day. During my recovery, I’d actually made up my mind to not play again. I found making this decision was quite liberating – a lot of my anxiety surrounded if I would play again, so relieving myself of that pressure and focusing more on coaching and other activities was a way to relieve that stress.  So as of right now, I’m going to continue with that plan. I really don’t want to go through what I went though again, and with a wife and baby on the way, it makes that decision much easier.  In the future if I continue to feel 100% for a long time it may be something I consider, but I will be ultra-careful and stop again at the first sign of any symptoms.

The message I have for young athletes is to pay attention to this issue. I mentioned earlier that I thought this was my first concussion – I know now that this was not the case. This is the first time I suffered post-concussion symptoms, but I know that I suffered dozens of minor concussions in the past. I always scoffed these previous head hits as ‘getting your bell rung’, ‘stinger’, or any of the other nicknames for them.  I actually considered myself either lucky or invincible to concussions because I never suffered any post-effects.  Turns out the cumulative effect of these minor concussions can add up, and make for severe symptoms once a threshold is passed.  So please pay attention to these minor ones as well. Remove yourself from play, and seek medical advice if you think you’ve suffered any kind of brain injury.