I am aware of all the fuss over concussions in sports and the high level of precaution now being taken since my son is intensely involved in competitive soccer, but I never truly understood all this until I suffered a concussion myself!
About 7 months ago we experienced a “moderate” car accident. It was more than a minor fender bender as both cars involved were totaled and I experienced injuries that required months of therapy to recover from. However I am grateful that it wasn’t serious…no one needed to go to the hospital, there were no broken bones or life threatening injuries, and my husband and son’s injuries were much less complicated than mine.
With physical therapy I successfully conquered the daily neck and back pain, and the headaches I was experiencing significantly decreased. However, the visual complications from the concussion were much more challenging to deal with and significantly hindered my ability to function throughout the day.
I knew something was very wrong when one day, I suddenly screamed at my husband to stop the car because I felt as if the vibration from the motor, the noise from everyone talking, and the blinding light from the sun were going to make my head explode and I felt so out of control I could have punched something.
As a pediatric Occupational Therapist I specialize in helping families and children deal with sensory overwhelm but I had never experienced anything even close to this myself. I sat on the curb of the sidewalk, feet away from the car, with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears to block out the noise of passing cars and just focused on my breathing for what seemed like an eternity. My husband stood over me, worried, not sure what was wrong as I could not even formulate the words to say, “I am NOT ok, but just leave me alone and I will be fine in a few minutes.”
I was already having problems using my cell phone. I never realized how frequently the visual information on one’s phone moves, scrolls, flashes, etc. multiple times every second as you switch between apps, open a web site, check dates on the calendar…pretty much do ANYTHING on a phone. I would get nauseous and dizzy after just a few seconds using my phone and learned to get really good at blinking during visual transitions and looking at my phone at an angle to decrease the intensity.
Then one day I had to pick up my son from a late soccer practice and drive home in the dark. I didn’t know this was a problem as it was the first time since the accident I had driven at night. It was so scary! I told my 12 year old he needed to put his phone away and quickly learn how to drive from the back seat! His job was to diligently watch in front of us and the sides for anything that could be dangerous or any animal that might appear out of no where as I kept my eyes fixated on the tires of the car in front of me.
The lights from the street and cars felt like lasers cutting my eyes and physically hurt so intensely I wanted to cry. When I looked at the black sky in front of me I saw lighting bolts of light that were not there and every light looked like 50 bubbles all squished together and deformed. When stopped at an intersection the cars passing in front of me had trails of light, like you see in the cool time lapse pictures…but this was not so cool!
As difficult and uncomfortable this experience has been, I have learned some interesting things about concussion and how to help heal your brain.
If you are struggling from visual disturbances, double vision, convergence insufficiency, and light sensitivity after a concussion here are some tips to help your brain heal:
1. Don’t Hide in The Dark, But Learn Just How Much Light You Can Tolorate Before It’s TOO MUCH.
Exposure to just enough, but not too much light helps your brain to slowly desensitize and increase tolerance. It may take some time to figure out how much is too much, but once you do, try to increase how much you can handle as tolerate. It’s ok to rest and turn off the lights if you have had a difficult day, but if it’s a good (or even so-so day) don’t be afraid of the light.
2. Were hats with rims as much as you need to decrease light from above and in your peripheral vision.
Fishing hats might not be pretty, but are very functional to use while driving. This helps your eyes receive enough light to work on desensitizing but decreases the bright of focal lights in your peripheral vision which sends your central nervous system into fight or flight mode.
3. Tinted glasses can change how your brain perceives light.
Here is a goofy selfie of myself as I write this post, using my special blue glasses to decrease the intensity of the visual input from the computer and a hat to block out the nauseating movement from my sons video games on the nearby TV. A specialized Behavioral or Developmental Optometrist can help determine if using colored glasses can decrease your symptoms while your brain heals and relearns how to calibrate visual input and movement. For me, blue glasses were the answer and have worked to calm down my central nervous system to decrease the sensory overwhelm and allow me to function throughout the day as best as possible. When I put on my glasses, I instantly feel a sigh of relief and wave of calm throughout my body. It’s pretty cool. Different colors have different effects based on what your brain needs, so blue may not be for everyone, but a professional trained in concussion recovery can help you find the right color and shade.
4. Its OK to Give Yourself a Break!
When you feel overwhelmed and your eyes and brain are tired…REST. If you keep pushing yourself you stress your visual system to the point that it shuts down and “gets sick.” Its important to know your visual limits and to stop when you have had too much. The more you can do this consistently the faster your brain and visual system will heal. Educate your friends and family that there will be times when you just have to say enough is enough and will need their help. If you keep pushing yourself past what your brain can handle, your nervous system stays in a state of fight or flight and can not relearn how to process your visual world.
5. Your Brain Needs to Calibrate With Your Body Movements.
Frequently after a concussion, your eyes and body get out of sync and your brain struggles to judge depth and position in space. This can challenge your balance and motor coordination. An easy way to work on this is to “look and touch.” This may seem too simple, but when you just look at an object, your brain may not be accurately perceiving how far away it is from your body. When you look at it, and then touch it, the feedback from your arm and hand proprioceptive feedback) teaches your brain and eyes exactly where that object is in space…and where your body is in space in comparison. The more you do this the more confidence your visual system has with its ability to judge distance and space. Think of it like checking your math work against the answer key to know if your on track or not.