From Football and the WWE to the World of Concussion

Chris Nowinski learned the hard way that the number of hits to the head is not the same as the number of concussions. His mission is now to share what he has learned about sports and brain trauma.

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I fell into the concussion world starting by playing football at Harvard University, and then as a professional wrestler with WWE where I got kicked in the head a little too much. Wrestling is not supposed to be real, but there are a lot of accidents out there. I got a concussion the summer of 2003 that I never recovered from. Part of the problem with me not recovering was that I didn't realize that concussions were something you couldn't mess with. I had bad symptoms. I had headaches. I got sick every time my heart rate went up, but I didn't speak up, and I didn't stop. So I wrestled or worked out almost every day for 5 weeks until I developed sleepwalking. Once I woke up on the floor of a hotel room, having jumped off the bed into the wall into the nightstand, I was fearful enough of going to sleep that I finally decided to find out whats wrong with my brain. That led me into an odyssey that went from research to a book to now this is my life. While I was trying to recover from my major concussion, I was traveling around the country to lots of doctors and seeing a lot of them ringside, trying to understand why I was feeling the way I was feeling, and especially why the symptoms weren't going away. The first 7 doctors that I saw didn't have good answers for it. They didn't really understand the injury. They didn't really understand what questions to be asking me. So every doctor would say, well how many concussions have you had before this? I would say zero. They would say well if this is your first concussion it's really strange that you've had such a long recovery. Finally I met Dr. Robert Cantu, who is kind of considered the godfather of sports concussion, and he was the first doctor to really appreciate what was happening. It started with just understaning what question to ask me, which was not how many concussions have you had, but he said well how many times have you been hit in the head and you saw stars or you felt dizzy or you got confused or you felt nauseous or you had ringing in your ears? I was like doc that happens a lot. Why? He goes well those are concussions as well. It started to dawn on me. Oh, well, I have had a lot then. We kind of remembered 6 specific ones in the previous few years. Then he said well the problem is not necessarily always with the number of concussions, It has to do with how you treat them afterwards. He taught me about the window of vulnerability that comes with a concussion. It was very clear that my problem wasn't 6 concussions, it was that I never took a day off for any of them, and the last one, it caught up with me. He really opened my eyes that there were long-term consequences. When I wrote Head Games, he really was my mentor on the project. He turned into from being my doctor to actually he let me schedule interviews with him during patient days. Where I would just be scheduled as a patient with 20 minutes. I come with a list of questions, record the interview, and go back and write them down. He kind of showed me the way this works, and it became my mission to go well I got to tell everyone else what people like Dr. Cantu know and all of the other researchers that are working on this Because if the world knew what these doctors and experts knew, we would change everything we do about sports and brain trauma.
Posted on BrainLine September 20, 2012.

Produced by Victoria Tilney McDonough and Erica Queen, BrainLine, and Dan Edblom.