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Guide Health: Oh, my head hurts

Don’t just shake off a head injury. Get it checked out. Brain injuries can lead to serious consequences that may not appear for decades

Hitting your head may just give you a headache, but you should never dismiss the hit as a minor injury. About 2.5 per cent of the Canadian population injure their heads each year, so it’s not an uncommon problem. But it can be serious.

The type of head injuries that you hear most about in the news are those that happen while playing sports. Just think, for instance, of hockey player Sidney Crosby. These traumatic brain injuries can cause blood clots, problems with cognition or thinking, changes in vision and perception, headaches, and even seizures.

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With ongoing head injuries, the effects can be serious and lead to dementia. Pugilistic dementia, for instance, is a type of dementia that results because of repeated blows to the head in boxing.

You may not play hockey or box, so you may believe that you are not at risk for any of these effects. However, what you may consider a minor hit to your head as the result of a fall can lead to seizures later in life.

A seizure is a sudden surge or change in the electrical activity of your brain that brings about loss of consciousness and control over your muscles. About 0.6 per cent of Canadians live with seizure conditions, and there are over 60 types of seizures depending upon the cause, symptoms and duration.

Seizures can occur at any age, but young children and older adults seem to be more at risk, and more men than women are affected. Genetics do play a role because your risk increases if you have family members that also have seizures.

Dementia, strokes, and brain tumours affect your brain and can result in seizures, as can high fevers. Children with a diagnosis of autism seem to have a higher incidence of seizures. Low levels of electrolytes (that is, the minerals that circulate in your body) and low blood sugar have also been linked to seizures. And, for developing babies, their mother’s drug use can result in seizures in newborns.

As you probably have guessed, damage to the normal functioning of your brain interferes with its electrical activity and produces seizures. However, sometimes a diagnosis of a seizure condition is made and none of the usual causes are present.

The seizures are often tracked back to a head injury many years ago that over time causes the changes resulting in seizures.

This means you may not even connect your fall from a tree that injured your head when you were a child to your seizures as an adult, several decades later!

If you do have seizures, a wide variety of drugs are available, for example phenytoin, carbamazepine, divalproex, lamotrigine, topiramate and clobazam. They work by affecting neurochemicals in your nervous system, with different drugs affecting different neurochemicals.

Unfortunately, there is no specific test for seizures that will tell you which neurochemicals need to be treated. Thus you may need to try several different drugs or a combination of two or more to achieve the best possible control.

Some people are able to identify triggers that lead to their seizures, and avoiding the triggers may reduce the incidence of seizures.

Missed medication, lack of sleep, illness, alcohol or illicit drug use, flashing or strobe lights, hormonal changes, and poor eating habits are some potential triggers.

Ideally, you want to prevent head injuries to reduce your risk for seizures. This involves common-sense safety precautions that we should all integrate into our routines.

Always wear you seat belt in a car, and always wear the appropriate head protection when playing sports or riding a bicycle.

Most falls occur in the home, so make sure you home is as fall-proof as it can be. Mild bumps to your head may not cause seizures, but repeated head injuries can — which means you may need to stop playing your favourite sport. And, if you do experience a head injury, have it evaluated, because any head injury can be serious.

About the author

Contributor

Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.

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