Fewer Brain Injuries During COVID-19 Pandemic

Monday, May 10, 2021

Rayna Hirst, PhD, associate professor of neuropsychology, runs the Behavioral Research and Assessment in Neuropsychology (BRAIN) Lab, where she is studying the effects of sports-related concussions. 

The good news to come out of the pandemic is that rates of concussions and other traumatic brain injuries (TBI) have decreased, likely because people are participating less in activities that increase risk, like playing sports or driving. But Hirst worries that those who do experience an injury might not seek medical care, concerned about overtaxed emergency rooms or exposing themselves or their children to coronavirus. Undiagnosed and untreated brain injury can mean worse symptoms, prolonged recovery and, in the worst cases, even brain bleed.
The pandemic can mean other problems for those suffering from concussion as well. The anxiety and depression that many healthy people are experiencing during this time can be exacerbated in TBI patients because of biochemical changes in the brain metabolism. And the social support that is important to recovery—keeping spirits up and encouraging the patient to keep treating symptoms—is restricted due to constraints on in-person gatherings. “That lack of social support can really make the situation quite concerning,” Hirst says.
Attending school or working online can compound concussion symptoms. Increased screen time, a requirement for virtual instruction and many meetings, can exacerbate TBI symptoms, which include fatigue and vision and hearing problems. While “distance learning is difficult enough for healthy kids with good attention spans and no vision or learning problems,” Hirst says, it poses significant challenges for students who have suffered concussion and moderate to severe TBI. 
She has some advice for TBI patients and their families:
  • Use blue light filters and lower your computer’s brightness setting to ease eye strain, and take frequent breaks to alleviate screen fatigue. Look away from your screen, turn off your camera or even do some physical activity (under a physician’s guidance). Parents may have to pursue an Individual Education Plan to formalize these accommodations for students. If you’re expected to log in to online meetings at work, Hirst suggests asking if you can call in instead.
  • For social support, host phone calls, or video calls if the patient is up to it. And Hirst encourages family and friends who are eligible to get vaccinated so they can visit and help out.
  • Seek mental health help if necessary. Tele-mental health has been shown to be just as effective as in-person counseling.
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