Professional rider Tiffany Keep shares the story of her concussion sustained at the South African Mountain Bike Championships plus a few tips on achieving a full recovery from this little-understood yet potentially devastating injury.
Concussion? That’s when you hit your head, hey?
Up until recently, this was my basic definition of concussion, which in actual fact is way more complicated than a simple sentence.
To be completely honest, I really had no idea what was coming, right until it hit me, quite literally, straight in the face. You see, I ended up dive-bombing the ground head-first off my mountain bike. Yes, the day before National Cross-Country Championships too. Some would say it was bad timing, but quite frankly at that point in 2020, nothing surprised me anymore. All puns and lame jokes aside, a scary part of concussion is actually how little people know about it – if I hadn’t been directly affected by it, I would be included in this quota too. An even scarier aspect to this point is that this quota includes a lot of athletes who regularly partake in high-impact sports like cycling. I am in no way a medical professional but thought merely sharing my experience of my concussion would be enough to maybe open a few eyes to the severity of a head injury and why you really do need to take it seriously.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Let’s start at the beginning — despite crashing multiple times in my 17 years of riding a bicycle I had actually never been concussed before. I think it’s fair to say I had a very basic understanding of the symptoms associated with a concussion but not an extensive knowledge of it. So, when I crashed — and flew over the bars landing on my head — I actually landed headfirst into the Stellenbosch World Cup hardpack — I stood up and immediately knew something was not right. My head was spinning and I had a high-pitched ringing in my ears – doesn’t sound too fun, does it?
The weird thing is that I didn’t realize I had actually sustained a mild-concussion until the next morning. Fortunately, I didn’t just brush my symptoms off as “pre-race nerves” and rock up on the start line as I could have then potentially done some permanent damage to my head. I mean, this is my brain I’m talking about here — it’s not a sprained ankle or tweaked knee. Our brains literally control everything going on in our bodies.
I remember that I just didn’t feel right. I had a serious loss of balance and couldn’t even walk in a straight line. I also grew a sudden hatred for loud noises and bright light. My head felt clouded and congested, similar to the feeling one has when you’ve contracted a sinus infection. Not to mention the headaches that would get progressively worse over the next few days. On top of this, there was also the emotional impact of concussion and not being allowed to exercise. To put it plainly, I’ve definitely had better experiences in my life.
Concussion works in weird ways – my case was described as a “severely mild concussion” which is still pretty bad, despite the fact that I wasn’t knocked unconscious during the crash or experienced nausea and blackouts — some of the wonderful symptoms associated with severe concussion. It is very difficult to tell if someone is concussed by just looking at them, it’s not like when you break an arm or a leg and you spend a few weeks hobbling around with a cast. Something visual which people can see and take note of. It’s also not like I had a massive sticker on my forehead stating, “I am still concussed.”
It is purely internal, and there is no set due date of when you will be cleared as “all better” and ready to continue life as per usual. The length of the recovery period depends on how seriously you take it and how good you are at genuinely doing nothing, completely slowing down and taking absolute rest. Upon telling people that I was concussed, they’d have this instant shocked expression on their face, like they half expected me to fall over right in front of them, there and then. I am pleased to say that this thankfully didn’t happen, although it does kind of prove my point which I made earlier about people knowing very little about concussion and how it affects you.
MY RECOVERY PROCESS
The most difficult part for me, as an athlete, was being told that I was not allowed to do any physical activity, which means no cycling, no walking, no running – basically anything that could potentially get my heart rate higher than 120bpm. Talk about going from hero to zero real quick. Netflix wasn’t even an option, as screen time is basically banned outright – due to the blue light which stimulates your brain – and reading too. So what is there left to do? I’ll answer that one for you, generally not much.
Sleeping is one thing I could do, which I managed quite well. I was sleeping around 11 hours each day, and was still taking naps in the afternoon. I just felt so fatigued and tired all the time, and the severe headaches didn’t help in the slightest. Concussion also triggered an emotional response for me, which included feeling sad for no reason at all, and just frustrated with not being able to do anything. Some days were worse than others, but I soon learned that the more you rest and take it easy, the more good days you will have. It was something that happened in a way that was completely out of my control, but I now had complete control over my recovery and rest, and was just playing the waiting game of when I would start to feel better.
A GOOD IDEA
I had to go through a series of tests to assess my symptoms and whether I was making any progress in my recovery, and one takeaway which I can highly recommend to every athlete is this: Do a baseline test! It doesn’t matter if you’ve been concussed before or not, a baseline test should be a necessity for every athlete. The test itself is just a series of questions where you allocate a score to various symptoms that are associated with concussion. Ideally this score should be as little as possible, and can then be used as a benchmark to compare to if you do end up with a concussion one day. It is something which is so small, and really won’t take up much time, but will be such a big help in the long run.
I was still able to do some other fun off-the-bike things — like watching the sunset on the beach, take short walks with friends, getting ice cream, or going on mini road trips – but all in small increments and ensuring I got lots of rest in between. I also listened to way too many podcasts and spent hours talking on phone calls to friends. As silly as it may sound to some – it is the harsh reality if you want to get better. I know many people who still experience symptoms of concussion today, as a result of poor recovery and not taking it seriously enough. After experiencing these horrible symptoms myself, I can’t imagine having to go through them for another day, let alone the rest of my life.
BACK ON THE BIKE
So, if you’ve gotten to this point of the blog, you’ll be happy to know that I am now back on my bike with a new-found appreciation for exercising in the beautiful outdoors. It was a long process to get to this point, but I am grateful for the lessons my concussion taught me, and what to look out for should it ever happen to me again. Any person who thinks that they are immune to concussion is living life with rose-tinted glasses. It is something that can happen to literally anyone, and I hope that sharing my experience has highlighted this. Please take a concussion, or even a potential concussion seriously. You only get one brain in your lifetime – you need to look after it.
| IMAGES: Gary Perkin & Facebook |