What everyone gets wrong when you have a head injury.

Common Misconceptions About Head Injuries: What You Need to Know

Conor Gormally’s first experience with a concussion left him feeling as though he was aboard a swaying ship. As a high school soccer enthusiast, he ventured into wrestling during the off-season. His initial match took an unexpected turn when an opponent’s headbutt sent him reeling. “The moment I stood, my world skewed at a 40-degree angle, and down I went,” Gormally shared with me years later.

The sensation of the room spinning overwhelmed him. Emotions surged unexpectedly. “I found myself in tears, bewildered by my own reaction. ‘I’m not upset, just utterly confused,’ I remember thinking,” Gormally recounted.

The school’s athletic trainer, after a quick assessment, advised Gormally to rest at home. His family doctor echoed this, insisting on no school or practice until his symptoms subsided.

Gormally heeded their advice. He darkened his room, crawled into bed, and embarked on a prolonged period of rest.

As weeks turned into months, Gormally’s condition didn’t improve. He battled constant exhaustion and headaches. His emotional state was erratic, swinging from numbness to overwhelming sadness. An attempt to watch a movie with his mother and girlfriend ended abruptly; the sensory overload left him nauseous and with a severe headache. The expected benefits of rest seemed elusive.

On a subsequent visit, his doctor reiterated the advice to rest, noting Gormally’s frustration and his mother’s protective concern in the medical records.

Nearly two months later, Gormally felt well enough to return to school, eager to move past the ordeal. However, his concussions persisted, occurring three more times over the next three years during sports activities. Each time, medical professionals offered the same guidance: “There’s not much we can do. Just rest. These things usually improve on their own.” Yet, recovery seemed just out of reach.

The prevailing “rest is best” advice proved ineffective for Gormally. Around the time of his injuries, between 2013 and 2016, emerging research began to challenge the notion that complete rest aids concussion recovery. Studies indicated that patients who engaged in their daily activities, avoiding total isolation, often recovered quicker than those who didn’t.

Subsequent research has consistently supported the idea that active rehabilitation, involving exercises, reading, and screen time, is beneficial for concussion recovery. The latest Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport strongly recommends active rehabilitation over complete rest. The approach to rehabilitation varies, with a range of protocols and therapies available to cater to individual needs.

Despite these insights, many patients continue to receive outdated advice. A 2018 report revealed that over half of concussion patients in the U.S. leave their doctor’s office without practical, evidence-based guidance or referrals to specialists. Many are still told to simply isolate themselves, a recommendation that can hinder recovery.

My own concussion experience echoed this outdated approach. A casual soccer game left me with a concussion so severe it felt like my reality had flattened. The ensuing weeks were a blur of discomfort and confusion, with every attempt at normalcy feeling insurmountably difficult.

Medical professionals I consulted described my concussion as a “brain bruise” and stressed the importance of rest. Their interpretations of rest varied, but the message was clear: avoid exacerbating my symptoms at all costs.

This advice, however, felt counterproductive. In 2018, motivated by his experiences, Gormally and his mother founded the Concussion Alliance to advocate for updated patient and provider education. They argue against the harmful practice of cocooning, a strategy that remains surprisingly common despite evidence suggesting its ineffectiveness.

Months of personal struggle and research led me to question the conventional wisdom on concussion management. Historical attitudes towards concussions, often trivializing their impact, have shifted dramatically in recent decades, thanks in part to increased awareness of their long-term effects, particularly among athletes.

The discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players highlighted the serious consequences of repeated head injuries. This awareness has gradually transformed concussion treatment protocols, emphasizing rest over immediate return to activity.

However, the blanket recommendation for total rest, without considering individual recovery needs, has proven to be an oversimplification. Emerging evidence suggests that moderate activity, tailored to the patient’s tolerance, can facilitate a more effective recovery.

My journey through concussion recovery was a testament to the limitations of the “rest-only” approach. It wasn’t until I sought specialized care that I began to see significant improvement. This experience underscored the need for a more nuanced understanding of concussion management among both healthcare providers and patients.

The slow pace of change in medical practice is frustrating, but there are signs of progress. Initiatives like the Concussion Alliance’s education programs for healthcare professionals, and the growing body of research advocating for active rehabilitation, offer hope for more effective concussion care in the future.

As we continue to learn and adapt, the goal remains clear: to ensure that those affected by concussions receive the care and information they need to recover fully and safely.