Concussions: A Linguistic Approach
Why there's no such thing as a "mild" concussion
Josh Scott MANAGING EDITOR
If you’ve been involved with contact sports in some capacity, chances are, you’ve heard someone say, “oh, it’s just a mild concussion.” According to team doctors, Sidney Crosby has been diagnosed with a mild concussion. Sound familiar? This phrase has become quite common.
It is a simple reality that sports medical personnel are beholden to both the interests of their team and the players that they are employed to treat and evaluate. It is understood that all three parties assume a moderate degree of risk in choosing to hide/reveal the extent of player injuries. In a perfect world, the safety of the player would be privileged above all else. However, this isn’t always the case. Case in point: time and time again, the NFL has been accused of concealing from players the full extent of the long-term health-risks associated with concussions.
General consensus on the matter, however, seems to be gradually shifting. The perception of football and its inherent dangers have led a great deal of parents — not to mention former players— to say on the record that, knowing what they know, they will not allow their own children to play.
Some athletes themselves are even reluctant to reveal the extent of their injuries, and often conceal them out of a misguided but understandable desire to return to play as soon as possible. While they endanger themselves by doing so, in the case of professional athletes, it is important to note that they are grown adults capable of making their own educated decisions — though that isn’t to say they shouldn’t be more openly dissuaded. That being said, I take issue with the “educated” aspect; it seems to me that there isn’t enough actual education happening.
In my lifetime, I’ve suffered three concussions. All three were diagnosed as mild. While I’ve been lucky enough to have had parents and coaches that put my personal safety above the interests of the team, others aren’t nearly so aware. I’ve known people to shrug off many more and continue to play and compete, unabatedly.
In short, coaches, players, medical staff, and even the media are complicit in underselling the dangers of concussions. A shift in terminology would go a long way towards changing this.
Technically speaking, those in the medical profession distinguish mild from severe concussions on the basis of carefully defined symptoms. In such matters, this sort of exacting terminology is useful.
Practically speaking, there’s nothing mild about a concussion. You are either concussed or not. Any trauma to the head or brain ought to be considered serious. Concussions have the potential to not only derail careers, but lives.
The dangers associated with concussions should not, in any context (save for a medical one) be undersold. To continue to distinguish some concussions as mild and imply to the public that — by extension — they ought not to be taken as seriously is simply irresponsible. Any brain injury is a big deal. We, as a general public even seem a little desensitized to the term “concussion” — if you ask me, the brazen specificity of “traumatic brain injury” (TBI) conveys it much better.
Whether “mild” or “severe,” concussions pose a real danger. In the matter of head injuries, erring on the side of caution always beats assuming any unnecessary risk. Proper medical attention must be sought if any concussion-like symptoms are experienced.
I ask the following: if a simple change in the language we use to describe concussions has the potential to shift public perception of them in a positive light — however slight — is that same change not worth, at the very least, our consideration?