On November 17, 2016, the Carolina Panthers took on the New Orleans Saints in a Thursday night game broadcast live to millions of football fans. With just over four minutes left to play, the Panther’s star linebacker, Luke Kuechly, went down with an injury after absorbing a hit from the Saints’ running back. The hit itself was unremarkable – the crown of the runner’s helmet impacted Kuechly’s facemask and chest area and both players fell to the ground. What happened next, however, shocked fans and set off a firestorm of questions.
Kuechly sat on the field sobbing uncontrollably following the play. Here was one of the toughest defensive players in the league, a 25-year-old in the prime of his career, crying so hard he had to gasp for breath between sobs. Had he twisted his leg on the play (as the replay footage seemed to indicate)? Was he overcome with emotion knowing that he might be sidelined due to injury? Television announcers and fans struggled to make sense of what they were seeing. Even more disturbing, Kuechly appeared utterly confused, as though he himself did not understand why his body was acting this way.
Doctors later determined that Kuechly suffered a major concussion. As for the crying, the outburst probably had nothing to do with physical pain or emotional grief. More likely, he was experiencing pseudobulbar affect, a condition in which head injury victims begin to involuntarily cry or laugh. Kuechly was placed in the NFL’s concussion protocol. Whether he ever plays again remains to be seen. Meanwhile, football fans are coming to terms with the fact that traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are more complex than most people realize.
Basic Facts About Concussions and Other Types of TBIs
Before Kuechly was even carted off the field that night, social media was buzzing with people weighing in on whether a concussion could produce the behavior he displayed. Everyone had an opinion on the matter, it seemed. Unfortunately, much of the commentary was based on reminiscences of old high school injuries and so forth, rather than scientific evidence. Given the amount of misinformation circulating about brain injuries, here are some basic facts with which we should all be familiar:
- Concussions are a common form of “closed” TBI. They occur when a violent blow causes the brain to move within the skull. Ordinarily, fluid surrounding the brain acts as a protective cushion. But in the case of a concussion, the movement is so strong that the brain actually contacts the inner skull.
- Other forms of closed TBI include contusions (bleeding or bruising of the brain), diffuse axonal injury (from shaking or rotational forces), and coup-contrecoup injury (opposites sides of the brain impact the skull in a back-and-forth motion).
- “Open” TBI refers to an injury in which a foreign object or skull fragment punctures the brain. The brain can also be damaged in ways unrelated to physical trauma, as in the case of a stroke, for instance.
- Not all concussions are caused by a blow or other blunt force trauma. A sudden jolt of the head, as may occur in an automobile accident, can also result in a concussion, even though the head does not come into contact with an object.
- Symptoms of a concussion include disorientation, confusion, head pain, nausea, fatigue, sleepiness, and sensitivity to light or noise. Serious concussions can be an immediate, life-threatening situation. Over time, severe or multiple concussions may result in cognitive disability.
Learn More About Head Injuries and Injury Prevention
With Super Bowl 51 right around the corner, the ongoing debate about concussions and player safety is sure to continue. Whether you are a football fan or are simply interested in the issue from a public safety standpoint, we encourage you to check out additional resources on concussions and TBI.