What Do You Have in Common with Olympic Athletes?

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Post concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI) experiences are very similar for weekend warriors, non-professional athletes, career enthusiasts, and even Olympic athletes. The common denominators to a successful recovery are: time and commitment. We will dive into injuries sustained at the Olympic games, a success story and how Power of Patients can help TBI recovery, throughout this blog.

The Anticipation

Every four years we wait and anticipate watching outstanding athletes compete in the summer olympics. The wait is now over. In just a few weeks, athletes from across the world will meet in Tokyo to contend for the highest medal count. Beyond incredible accomplishments, personal bests, and extraordinary sportsmanship, many athletes may face hardship, injury and possibly withdrawing from their event. 

Dedicated Time to Their Sport 

These athletes are also anxiously waiting for the Olympics to roll around every 4 years. They spend so much time confronting fear, worrying about injury and ensuring that they will be prepared. Outside of their immense physical dedication to their sport, the groundwork to be mentally prepared is  overwhelming (Murphy, 2010). These athletes have to make sure they can ease their nerves while competing at the trials to make the Olympics, and then at the Olympics themselves. This is no easy feat. The pressure put on these athletes is gut-wrenching (Murphy, 2010). And even after these athletes put in thousands of hours of practice towards their sport, their Olympic appearances can come crashing down very quickly because of unexpected injuries. 

US Olympic Team during the opening ceremony at the 2008 Summer Olympics. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Members_of_Team_USA_during_2008_Summer_Olympics_opening_ceremony.jpg

Olympic Injury Statistics

Although we probably don’t realize, one in ten Olympic athletes will get injured during the games (Fischetti, 2012). Like you, the injuries these athletes endure are also inflicted often from collisions, crashes and wipeouts. Among summer sports; soccer, tae kwon do and field hockey have the highest percentage of injuries (Fischetti, 2012). Typically around 70% of the injuries will occur while the athletes are competing, and the rest while warming up or cooling down (Howard, 2016).

US Women’s Olympic Soccer Team https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/23/sports/olympics/uswnt-olympics-carli-lloyd-julie-ertz.html

The injuries seen in the Olympics are similar to those seen on other high performance tournaments and world stages. Overs-use, swelling and soreness are the most common (Howard, 2016). Even though severe injuries are rare, they become most detrimental to an athlete. Head injuries, muscle tears and lacerations can put an athlete out of competition for extended periods of time. The Olympic physicians and medical staff are always ready and eager to tend to any athlete in need. Even with their help, however, some athletes do not return the games to finish out. 

Not being able to return to an activity or sport you love after sustaining severe injuries like a TBI, is a common thread. It is incredibly important for everyone, including you, to seek care and commit to treatment in order to increase any chances of returning to what you love. You know that you can be motivated and dedicated to the things you love, so once experiencing a TBI, the key is to shift this same level of commitment and zealous mindset towards your recovery. 

Total Well-Being of Athletes

Beyond physical injury, the total well-being of these athletes is of great concern for sports psychologists. These athletes are constantly under public scrutiny and tremendous pressure to remain at the top. Unfortunately, some incredible talents are faced with challenges surrounding mental health, happiness and addiction. It is the primary focus of sports psychologists that these athletes stay well-balanced and have a large support group to help guide them through obstacles (Murphy, 2010).

Battle with Brain Injury: A Story 

Helen Maroulis is a 2016 gold medalist Olympic wrestler who has endured a couple concussions. She recently opened up about her battle against brain injury and mental health, when she was gearing up to make this year’s games (Pesta, 2020). 

In 2018, Maroulis was in a wrestling league in India, when she collided heads with another opponent. She immediately felt off, and wondered if she had possibly sustained a concussion, like one she had had in 2015 (Pesta, 2020). After this collision she tried to rest, however her disorientation wouldn’t subside. She was not herself. She took the next few weeks to rest, and really spent most of her time sleeping. However, as the league was wrapping up, Maroulis felt obligated to compete in the semifinal rounds, and so she did. Upon returning to the states, Maroulis was diagnosed with a concussion, although, it was not anything like the mild one she had experienced before (Pesta, 2020). 

https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/07/31/helen-maroulis-brain-trauma-injury-recovery-tokyo-olympics

Her Symptoms

Beyond feeling extremely fatigued and having light and sound sensitivity, the concussion altered Maroulis’ personality. She spent weeks on a rollercoaster of emotions and dealing with newly emerging sensitivities to sound. With the help of many specialists and her immense desire to get better, Maroulis took part in an intensive treatment regimen. She changed her diet, wore noise-canceling headphones and special vision-correction glasses (Pesta, 2020). 

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Many Months of Treatment

After many months, Maroulis began to feel more like herself. She was cleared to jump back into training. While sparring with a coach she endured another blow, inflicting yet another concussion. She now had new symptoms, such as vertigo. Maroulis was treated yet again for a few months (Pesta, 2020). After being cleared a second time to return to training she kept experiencing moments of panic and overwhelming emotion every time she aggravated her neck. These episodes lead to a new diagnosis: post traumatic stress disorder. 

From here, Maroulis went to a trauma specialized treatment center. Part of her treatment was to recount the sparring incident. Maroulis mentions how this was frustrating and painful. However, with their help she was able to work through it and focus on how she was feeling, in order to fully heal (Pesta, 2020).

Taking the Time

Luckily, Maroulis’ family was also adamant about her taking some time to focus on her health. In 2019, Maroulis moved home with her family and gave herself some time to fully recuperate. 

Once giving herself the time to heal, she realized she was still not ready to give up on wrestling quite yet. She returned to the grind and re-emerged into the world wrestling scene. At the Pan American Olympic qualifier she proved her perseverance by winning all of her matches and qualifying for the Tokyo 2021 games (Pesta, 2020). 

Return to Competition… Isn’t Always The Case

This success story isn’t always what athletes, or anyone for that matter, will experience. Many times, athletes rush back to competition and never fully recover from their injuries. The time Maroulis allotted towards her brain trauma treatment allowed her to be able to qualify in this year’s summer Olympics, and continue with her wrestling career. 

Maroulis, although initially hesitant to step off the wrestling mat for an extended period of time, did eventually commit to pursuing an intensive treatment program. There are so many people who have been in the same shoes as Maroulis, but haven’t been able to withdraw from their daily lives quite so easily because of the responsibilities they have. What we can learn from Maroulis, is that time can sometimes be the game changer. If TBI patients do not take enough time to focus on their injury, they may never truly return to the way they were before. 

We’d like to wish Maroulis the best of luck as she heads out to Tokyo to compete in the summer games. We would also like to wish her the best throughout her continued TBI recovery, as we all know it is always a long journey. 

Required Recovery

Recovery is rigorous. It has to be. For professional athletes, Olympic athletes and everyone else, injuries require rest time. If you have sustained a TBI and are currently progressing through your treatment regimen, our Power of Patients customized TBI tracking dashboard, is for you. The patient centered application allows patients to input their TBI symptoms and triggers, as they happen, in order to track how they are feeling and when. With easily downloadable patient reports, our users can also share their tracking results with sports physicians, primary care providers and caregivers. Register today at powerofpatients.com.

 

Howard J. Olympic injuries: Which are most common? | CNN [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2021 Jul 14]. Available from: https://www.cnn.com/2016/08/09/health/injuries-olympic-games-rio/index.html

Fischetti M. Leg and Head Injuries Are Frequent at the Olympics – Scientific American [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2021 Jul 14]. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/leg-head-injuries-frequent-at-olympics/

Murphy S. What it takes to be an Olympic athlete [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2021 Jul 14]. Available from: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2010/02/olympic-athlete

Pesta A. Helen Maroulis: Brain trauma, recovery, comeback for Tokyo Olympics – Sports Illustrated [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2021 Jul 14]. Available from: https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/07/31/helen-maroulis-brain-trauma-injury-recovery-tokyo-olympics

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