Living with a
Concussion

Living with a Concussion by Keith Primeau

I retired from playing in the NHL in 2006 because of the fallout of a concussion in 2005, but my injury history goes back to 1997. Well, at least the diagnosed ones. People ask how many concussions I’ve had during my 15-year career, and all I can confirm is four documented incidents.

If there were others, I can’t tell you about them. It’s a lifetime of head trauma, and that can be lost on some people. I also believe, on reflection, that my documented concussions weren’t managed the way they should have been. It is nobody’s fault—we simply didn’t know any different back then.

My first confirmed concussion happened in 1997 when I was playing for the Hartford Whalers. I was blindsided in the neutral zone and spent the night in Hartford Hospital. At the time, league policy was one week of no activity. I really thought, “How novel. Terrific! They really care about my health and well-being.” I took the week off, and when I think about it, I couldn’t even tell you if I was healed or not when I returned. There was no real way of knowing. Only later did I realize that recovering from a concussion is not like a switch that flips from “injured” to “healed.”

As radical and cautious as it seemed at the time to give players a week without activity and contact, we now realize that you can’t put a time frame on how long it will take an individual’s brain to heal.

My second documented concussion had me being taken off the ice on a stretcher in game six of the Eastern Conference Semifinal in 2000. Again, I stayed in the hospital overnight, then returned to Philadelphia the next day and played two nights later in game one of the Eastern Conference Final.

When I look back, that second concussion was really the beginning of my deterioration, mostly because I didn’t manage my injury properly. The mentality back then was that you persevere, you push through, and you play for your teammates. That’s what I did, and that’s what I wanted to do. There’s also a mindset that if there’s no blood, no bruising, you’re fine. I finished up the playoff run, but I’m not sure how long it ultimately took to heal.

The third incident also occurred in the neutral zone. Another blindside to the head and this time in New York. I was out of commission for six weeks with that one and came back in the playoffs. Even though I was cleared to play, in hindsight I don’t think the concussion had completely healed. We now know an athlete must be as close to 100 percent recovered as possible before returning to play in their sport.

Then there’s the fourth concussion, the one in 2005, which I’ve never fully recovered from. After each trauma, it took longer for me to heal. Nearly seven years have passed since the last incident, and I still suffer from post-concussion syndrome.

I have symptoms that definitely weren’t there before all the concussions; headaches and head pressure are probably the most consistent. They don’t happen every day, but I have to ask myself how I really feel every time I wake up. I used to be able to jump out of bed and get right into my activities for the day. I’m a lot more lethargic than I ever was.

Because I’ve always been a really active guy, that lack of energy and the exercise-induced dizziness and lightheadedness are the most frustrating symptoms. They’ve plagued me for years, but I’m slowly recovering. I can get on the bike now, although it’s a pretty lame ride. But I can do it, nonetheless. That’s a good feeling, especially considering it’s been such a long time since I’ve been able to do something like that.

I’m also on the ice pretty much every day coaching my kids, but I haven’t worn full equipment since the day I retired. I can’t go back to where I was. I’d love the opportunity, but the risk-to-reward ratio is too severe for me. I’ve got a fear of falling and hitting my head, a fear of being run into, fear of suffering an injury.

The symptoms slow me down at times, but I don’t let them keep me from getting on with life, with my daily activities. On the days when I’m not feeling well, I have to work harder to get through those.

For me, the glass is always half full instead of half empty. It’s also easier for me to get on a plane and fly somewhere now. The pressure, the pain, seems to have resolved itself.

As I learned more about concussions, I realized that no two are alike, not even for the same person. People respond very differently to all the available treatments. I’ve done Eastern, Western and modern medicine…I’ve tried a lot of different things.

The most important thing to remember is the human element, even more so with kids. We all get caught up in the emotion of the game and can forget that a brain is far too important to put a game-related value on—that value being wins or losses for a team, a player, or a coach’s ego. It’s more important that the individual be safe and healthy, and that means being removed from play when an injury occurs instead of staying in for the sake of a win.

In most kids’ hockey (minor/house league) there are no doctors, trainers, therapists, or medical staff on site. The onus falls on parents, coaches, and kids to speak up and say some- thing’s not right. It’s tough for everybody to admit, but it needs to be done because we still don’t fully understand the danger of concussions and head trauma. We’re always learning more.

I like to say, “Real courage is having the ability to speak up.” For the longest time in hockey, the mentality has been about persevering, about being there for your teammates. But one way to accomplish that goal is by using your voice to speak up and say you don’t feel well. It makes it easier and more acceptable for everyone in the long run.

Keith Primeau crashes the net during the Eastern Conference finals (May 22, 2004).

This is something I’ve dealt with as a parent. Three of my four children—sons Corey and Chayse and my only daughter, Kylie—have had at least one documented concussion, all of them sports-related. The boys got theirs playing hockey, and my girl suffered hers in field lacrosse, and all around the same age, 13 to 14.

My younger son, Chayse, doesn’t even remember being helped off the ice. We followed the protocols—kept him off the ice and out of school for a few days. He was bored and bouncing off the walls, looking for something to do, so my wife and I talked it over and sent him back to school and put him back on the ice, believing he was okay. Luckily he had baseline testing before his injury. When we had him retested after he returned to classes and hockey, we were surprised to see he hadn’t fully recovered.

The most important thing about this experience is that it underscores how crucial it is for kids to have baseline testing done—cognitive and physical—because the tests give doctors and therapists a starting point. Without them, we would have never known what Chayse’s pre-injury levels were. It scares me to think we could have kept him in school after initially sending him back too early, or put him in harm’s way on the ice. No parent wants to do that. Luckily we had that baseline to tell us he needed more recovery time.

People often wonder how my own concussion history affects what I let my kids do. After her concussion, my daughter Kylie asked if my susceptibility made her and her brothers more genetically predisposed to concussions. At the time I laughed it off as just another teenager finding one more thing to blame on her parents. As more evidence comes in, however, there appears to be some merit in her question.

I tell my kids to enjoy life. Sure, they could stop athletics and competitive sports, but how much fun would that be? People get extreme enjoyment out of playing sports and being around friends. Even if they choose not to take part in sporting events, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t get injured elsewhere in life. If injuries happen, manage them properly; get yourself back into good health, and, most importantly, move forward. A boat is safe in harbor, but that’s not where it’s meant to stay. You can rot in dry dock or set sail with life jackets and lifeboats, calling in for help when you need it.

That’s the attitude I bring when coaching my sons’ hockey teams. This coming season I’ll be working with only my youngest boy’s team, but my brother Wayne and I also run Durham Hockey Institute, a hockey school in Oshawa, Ontario.

Of course, kids need to be safe, and parents hold primary responsibility for keeping them so. There are many tools available to help, but informed parents are a child’s best protection.

No matter what equipment or safety gear kids use, every- one involved should be clothed in respect. Respect for the game, respect for opponents, respect for the rules, respect for body and brain. That alone goes a long way to curb injuries.

Story is taken from Concussed written by Keith Primeau & Kerry Goulet

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StopConcussions is a non-profit company, that aims to bring players, parents, coaches and officials information on brain concussions and their consequences in contact sports.

This website is here to help educate and are not intended to replace medical care and/or professional supervision. There is no substitute for a competent neurologist, physician, health professional or clinician when it comes to diagnosing and managing concussions. What StopConcussions offers is an insight into the nature of a brain injury. It is a guide to help you understand the cause, effects and consequences of concussions as well as how you can help reduce the incidences of the injury, manage the injury better and be able to ask all the right questions when dealing with a concussed individual.

The brain is complex, and each injury is personalized. Not only is every brain different, so is every concussion, and the therapy must be tailored to each individual. With this said, only a physician or qualified healthcare professional who has been educated in concussions can recommend a treatment and rehabilitation program. If you have any questions or concerns regarding a specific injury, contact your physician immediately.

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