Concussions: Myths and Truths From UPMC Sports Medicine Expert

When you think about a concussion, you might immediately envision professional football players, thanks to the news surrounding head injuries. But don’t think a concussion—the mildest form of traumatic brain injury—just happens by getting tackled. It can happen in ways you would never expect.

“I just saw someone the other day who had a dog toy thrown at their head by their toddler,” UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program clinical neuropsychologist Alicia Sufrinko said. “There can be a variety of ways you can get a concussion.”

While the narrative surrounding concussions suggests having one can permanently impact the rest of a patient’s life, Sufrinko said that’s not true.

“I see sometimes 20 adolescent concussion patients per day, and a vast majority of them are better in three to four weeks, and it has little bearing on their future,” Sufrinko said.

Sufrinko recently spoke to Healthy Me PA about concussions, and she dispelled some of the most common myths surrounding these injuries.

Myth: Concussions always cause a loss of consciousness

The most common myth about a concussion, according to Sufrinko, is that having one always causes a loss of consciousness. This happens only 8 to 10 percent of the time “in the sports world,” she said.  

“I’ve had parents come in and say, ‘Well, I wasn’t really concerned about this hit because they didn’t lose consciousness or anything, so I didn’t think it was a concussion and I let them continue to play the rest of the tournament,’” she said.

Parents need to be aware of other signs and symptoms of a concussion, according to Sufrinko. These include headaches, confusion, amnesia, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. She said parents should be critical when trying to determine whether to take their child to the hospital for a possible concussion.

“If you’re concerned there could be a concussion, just get it checked out,” she said. “Sometimes we see people and it’s not a concussion, and that’s OK, too.”

Myth: Resting is the only way to treat a concussion

A common belief is that a day or two of rest is the only way to treat a concussion. And while a day or two of resting is often good for helping concussion patients right away, it’s not always the answer in helping a patient recover speedily.

“We see that a progressive return to activities with breaks is more helpful” in treating a concussion, Sufrinko said.

The UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, she said, has an active treatment and management style for concussions.

“We pretty much never say, ‘Just go home and rest,’” she said. “We always give people a structured rehab program, and we follow up with them and make sure they get to 100 percent before we discharge them.”

Myth: Wearing a helmet prevents concussions

While a helmet and other types of headgear can lessen the impact of force, there is no complete method to preventing a concussion, Sufrinko said. The injury, she said, comes from the brain shifting inside the skull and affecting your nervous system. Nothing on or over the head can stop that force.

“If there’s enough force inside your skull—it doesn’t even have to be hitting your head. It can be just kind of a whiplash—then you can get … a cascade of events that lead to an energy crisis in the brain,” she said.

The UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program travels locally, nationally, and internationally to educate schools and medical officials on proper concussion treatments.

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t care about concussions at all,” Sufrinko noted. “We’d just brush them off and [say], ‘Oh, are you conscious? Get back in the game.’ That’s certainly not how you can manage a concussion.”