The Effects Extend Beyond The Soccer Field.
Length of time can be a relative unit of measurement. Near-term and long-term can mean different things to different people in different situations. Often, when the topic is head trauma and concussions, “long-term” symptoms can mean several weeks, months, and sometimes a few years. Emily Peters is a decade removed from her last concussion, and the negative consequences from that trauma continue to this day.
Emily isn’t exactly sure of how many concussions she suffered, but it’s approximately eight. Similarly, she isn’t exactly sure when the first one occurred, but it was sometime early in her high school career.
What she can precisely pinpoint, however, is the six month window in which a series of concussions changed her life forever.
Peters was a successful soccer player who also fell in love with rugby, leading to a difficult choice of which sport to focus on in college. She could either attend the University of Pittsburgh and play varsity soccer, or her hometown Penn State, where the women’s rugby program is legendary. While ultimately choosing Pitt and soccer, Emily was determined to finish high school strong, as a dual sport athlete.
Unfortunately, the spring of her senior year would be the start of the aforementioned six month window in which her concussions began to wreak havoc on both her sporting and non-sporting life. In March, while making a tackle during a rugby match, she hit the back of her head on the ground. Rugby was a club sport, and there was no trainer to assess any possible issue, so Emily decided on her own to take a rest for just a couple of days. However, unaware of the seriousness of the injury she likely suffered, Peters played in four soccer games over the course of the following weekend.
Emily recalls, “I could just tell that whole weekend my depth perception was off. As a forward, people would play me long balls and one hit me in the side of the head because I just lost track of the ball, which was very unusual for me. So that was really eye-opening. I was very new to what that really felt like, having a bad concussion. I didn’t know what all the symptoms were, and there wasn’t a lot of education on it at that time."
Following that tournament Emily was worried enough to tell her father that something was off.
She said, “After that tournament I remember telling my dad that something’s not right and he took me to see Dr. Echemendia who was associated with U.S. Soccer, and had an office in State College. I was able to see him and I was out for about 3 weeks. When I came back and started training I remember having chills and weird body temperature stuff that I really hadn’t had before, but I didn’t want to stop playing.”
Another incident occurred in the middle of that summer, shortly before Emily would report to her new college team at Pitt. This time, a head-to-head collision was the culprit.
“The top of the girls head hit my chin, and it knocked me out for a couple of seconds. It was still club, so there were no trainers and I didn’t tell anyone. I just took a couple of days off and started working out again.”
Unfortunately, Emily’s run of bad luck followed her to Pitt. It took less than a month of practice for her to take an elbow directly to the temple. A few short minutes later, a fluke incident resulted in her being accidentally struck by a ball in the back of the head, off the foot of a coach.
Peters recalls, “There were trainers around, but I still finished practice. That was a Wednesday, I also practiced on Thursday and I practiced on Friday. Then I came in on Monday and I was completely out of it. That was the most messed up I’ve ever felt.”
The effects would extend beyond the soccer field.
“My entire freshman year is a blur to me. I was falling asleep in class, I was falling asleep while trying to study. The headaches weren’t even bad at that point, but it was all of the other symptoms like noise sensitivity, light sensitivity, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, lightheadedness, fogginess, confusion. There are just points of time I don’t remember,” she said.
Emily believes this began to change the training staff’s awareness of head injuries, as she was a microcosm of what was happening across the broader sports landscape at the time, including Sidney Crosby’s high profile, extended, concussion induced absence right there in Pittsburgh.
Emily left no stone unturned in her efforts to regain her health and get back on the field.
She said, “Those two hits really put me out. I tried everything, vestibular therapy, vision therapy, different medications, hyperbaric therapy. Anything under the sun you can think of, I’ve probably done it.”
Despite those efforts, Peters' symptoms simply never improved to the point where medical professionals were willing to clear her to resume soccer activities.
“It got to a point where they kept delaying. ‘In three months we’ll try to get you to a point where you can run and train’ and we’d get there and then it would be another three months, and it kept getting delayed and delayed. Then, part way through my sophomore year (Feb. 3, 2011), they told me I couldn’t play. I did not decide to retire, they decided for me.”
Unfortunately, Peters' shortened playing career was only chapter one of her journey to escape the symptoms of her head injuries. After graduation (and over four years after her last concussion), Emily began a career in finance. The job required long hours, a great deal of travel, and many hours in front of a computer monitor. It was a recipe for disaster.
“I was extremely sick. I’d get home and just stare. I wouldn’t eat, I wouldn’t watch TV, I’d just stare at the wall. This is when I first started to experience suicidal ideation,” she said.
At that point, Emily decided to go back to a psychologist she hadn’t seen in over a year, and was in turn connected with a new doctor who has specialties in both neuroscience and chiropractics. After X-rays and MRIs of her neck, it was discovered that Peters had a C2 subluxation, which was pinching the greater occipital nerve. That was preventing proper blood flow to the brain, and was consequently hampering the healing process. The issue was so severe that it led Emily to short term disability, and kept her away from work for 10 weeks.
At this point, her treatment included sensory deprivation where she would sleep as much as possible and otherwise just sit in a dark room. There was no reading, no TV, no computer, with her only connection to the outside world being her doctors appointments. This included being alone over the holidays, which fell within the 10 week window.
To this day, Emily remains frustrated that awareness is so lacking in the major role that the neck often plays in incidents of head trauma. Women, who physiologically have weaker neck muscles than men, are even more inclined to have lingering effects which are directly related to the neck. For Peters, the combination of loosening the issues in her neck and the results of the sensory deprivation treatment began to yield positive developments, at least from a physical standpoint.
Emily said, “The physical symptom improvement was huge, but the psychological side has been a lot slower to catch up. I’ve had depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and have been diagnosed with PTSD from everything that’s happened.”
More recently, Emily’s doctors have also tried a newer and more alternative treatment, called cranial bone movement. It is a treatment where, through the mouth, the doctor repositions bones in the skull which have been shifted due to head injury. This required four straight days of treatment, in three to five hour increments. Thankfully, the time spent seemed well worth it as it relieved a great deal of the pressure Peters was feeling in her head.
Ten years on from her final concussion, however, Emily is far from symptom-free, particularly from an emotional standpoint. Three years ago, Peters sought out more intensive psychological counseling and began receiving more helpful medications. Those sessions are what led her to being diagnosed with PTSD.
Emily said, “I’m doing some intense trauma therapy right now, now that I’ve gotten a lot of physical symptoms taken care of. Generally things are pretty under wraps, but mental health issues are always there. Having the coping mechanisms in place has made it easier.”
Coming to personal terms with the mental health issues which concussions have left her with, has been difficult for Peters, especially as a former high level athlete.
“Being an athlete, I was hard wired to always be OK, you have to be mentally stable, you have to be calm. It’s been a bit of me accepting and destigmatizing it in my own mind,” she said. Because we’re athletes, we can deal with pain, we push ourselves in training and games. I could play with an ankle sprain. Physical symptoms, as much as they suck and can be debilitating, you can wrap your head around it and deal with it. It’s the emotional aspect that you’re like ‘I’ve never had this before, I’ve never had depression or anxiety.’ The symptoms that people told me were symptoms of a concussion had nothing to do with the mental health side. I think there’s a greater chance that you’re going to suffer from that, and have it last, than the physical symptoms, because it changes the chemistry of your brain.”
In the fall of 2009, Emily never could have anticipated that she would still be dealing with the effects of that unfortunate stretch of six months a full ten years later. However, it has taught her an important and simple lesson that she passes on to others. “No two concussions are ever the same, and everyone’s experience is going to be different, but there is so much overlap,” she said.
Given that overlap, there is almost always someone who either has gone through, or is currently going through, a similar scenario. In other words, there is always someone to help. Emily is one who wants to be helpful and in a true act of selflessness, Emily has donated her brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, to research the effects of the trauma which has had such a lasting impact on her life.