Grey Matters: make smart choices to protect your brain

By Jorge Eller, MD

We live in an on-the-go culture and in a great location for being outdoors and active – especially during the summer and early fall.

Being active is important to your health.

As a neurosurgeon – and someone who has seen the ill effects of poor safety choices– I stress to my family, friends and coworkers the importance of taking proper precautions when participating in outdoor activities to prevent injury.

James C. Wurzer, MD, PhD

I have seen time and again just how debilitating brain and spinal cord injuries can be. Severe injuries can be fatal. If a patient survives a severe injury, the damage done to his or her brain or spine is, most of the time, irreversible. Severe injury suffered by the brain or spinal cord cannot be fixed the same way a broken bone could. Surgery can save a life, but in many cases, these injuries leave patients permanently disabled.

Common brain injuries that occur when a patient experiences a blow to the head are called concussions or contusions.  A contusion – a bruise to the brain tissue – is visible on a CT scan, and in extreme cases it can lead to coma or even death. Depending on the severity of the contusion, surgery may be required to alleviate the brain swelling and the increased intracranial pressure associate with a contusion.

Symptoms for both concussions and contusions range depending on severity, and can include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, ringing in the ears, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, or changes to personality or behavior.  In extreme cases, patients may experience loss of consciousness, coma, paralysis, loss of sensation, or seizures. Anyone with any of these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention after a head injury.

We associate concussions with high- impact sports, like football – but in reality, concussions can happen due to a variety of causes, including car crashes, falls, and bicycle accidents. Seek medical attention for a head injury in which you experience symptoms of a concussion. Exercise caution in situations where you could repeat the injury. Multiple concussions compound on previous injuries, and can result in permanent brain damage.

Spinal injuries can also be damaging to your overall health. Too frequently, I see cervical spine fractures caused by someone hitting his or her head against a shallow sandbar while body surfing or diving in shallow water head first. These fractures can cause injury to the spinal cord, which can lead to spinal damage, permanent weakness, numbness, or immobility - as severe as complete quadriplegia. In some instances, surgery can stabilize the spine and repair damage to the bone, but cannot fix the damage suffered by the spinal cord itself.

Our brains are the epicenters of our bodies. Signals from our brain tell our bodies to perform important functions like moving, talking, or taking a breath. Our brains process the information that comes from the environment around us, such as sights, smells, sounds and sensations. Brain tissue is very fragile. Prevention is the best way to maintain good brain and spinal health, and it is the only thing we can do to prevent tragedies.

While these seem simple – any kindergartener knows to look both ways before crossing the street – following your common sense and obeying the laws will help you keep your brain – and body – healthy.

  • Wear your seat belt when driving or riding in a car. Ensure that others in your car are properly belted too – including appropriate car seats for children.
  • Obey traffic laws and speed limits.
  • Be an alert driver: Don’t drink and drive. Don’t text and drive.
  • Wear a properly fitting helmet when biking.
  • Wear appropriate protective gear when playing sports.
  • Follow biking laws and be cautious when interacting with motor vehicle traffic.
  • Swim safely. Don’t dive into shallow ocean waters or the shallow end of the pool.
  • Never dive head first. Use your arms to protect your head when surfing, body surfing, or diving.
  • Know bodies of water where you swim and surf.
  • Always swim in lifeguard-protected waters.

It’s worth repeating: prevention is the ONLY way to treat brain and spinal injuries, so protect yourself and your loved ones this summer as you enjoy the season and all of the activities it has to offer. Stay safe and play smart!

Jorge Eller, MD, is a cerebrovascular and endovascular neurosurgeon, AtlantiCare Neurosciences Institute, Thomas Jefferson University at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center