Use your head to protect your brain

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— Slipping on ice or falling off a bike can happen to anyone. Yet these everyday incidents are potentially dangerous to one of our most precious possessions -- the brain.

Encased in a bony skull, the brain is relatively well protected and can withstand minor bumps and bruises. But more forceful blows can send the brain crashing against the skull and damage delicate tissues.

A concussion is a brain injury caused by a blow to the head that affects the brain's function. Signs of concussion include confusion, temporary loss of consciousness and loss of memory of events before or after the accident.

Other possible symptoms -- some of which may not show up for hours or days -- are sleepiness, dizziness, vomiting, changes in vision, hearing loss, trouble concentrating and seizures.

Any of these symptoms should prompt a visit to the emergency department for evaluation. Following a physical examination, a physician may discharge the patient with a set of instructions for friends or family to observe over the next couple of days.

These instructions might include waking the patient every four hours during the night for the next 48 hours and being observant for any change of mental status or physical functioning.

When the initial exam turns up symptoms that might indicate a more serious injury, a physician might order a CT (computed tomography) scan.

Since its introduction in 1972, the CT scan has revolutionized the care of patients with potentially serious head injuries. The scan is quick and accurate and allows a physician to see if a patient has suffered a more serious injury such as a hematoma, caused by bleeding within the brain.

More than a million Americans arrive at emergency departments each year with closed-head injuries. The most common cause of head trauma is car accidents, especially among teens and young adults. Balance is a factor in falls that cause head injuries to youngsters and elderly people. Recreational sports also contribute to the toll in head injuries each year.

Although it's difficult to foresee and prevent all injuries, the following steps can lower risk:

  • Always wear a seat belt in a vehicle.
  • Infants and young children should always ride in approved child safety seats in the rear seat.
  • Wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle or bicycle.
  • Wear protective headgear when kayaking, in-line skating, skateboarding, snowboarding, skiing or rock climbing.
  • Wear hardhats on the job when required and when doing

comparable types of heavy work around the home.

  • Protect toddlers from falls with stair gates.
  • Don't use infant walkers.
  • Seniors should have sturdy hand rails in bathrooms and showers, safe outdoor steps with sturdy rails and indoor areas that are well-lit and free of throw rugs.

You must use your head to protect your brain. Developing healthy habits is the best way to defend against possible injury.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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