A year ago, I was in an onstage accident. A stage manager sent another dancer on before his cue and we collided. I fell to the floor and knocked my head. Seconds later, I was being helped offstage and felt like I had just woken up from a nap. Nonetheless, I quickly got my bearings, and was soon back onstage performing my physically grueling routine.
After the bow I felt extremely tired and didn’t remember much of what had happened. I slept for 12 hours but was still groggy the next morning. I was also very emotional and scared to go back onstage, but I swallowed my fear and continued to perform. When my emotions became erratic and I had an uncharacteristic outburst, I knew it was time to see a doctor. He told me that I had a concussion—an injury that’s more common in dancers than you might think! Here’s what you need to know.
A concussion is a mild brain injury that occurs when a bump, blow or jolt to the head causes a change in the way your brain normally functions. It doesn’t always involve a loss of consciousness and may be serious even if you’ve just “bonked” your head. Concussions can occur in any number of situations—when dancers learn tricky lifts, perform new roles or rush backstage to make a cue.
A concussion can affect any part of your brain, so there’s no hallmark symptom. You might experience headaches, nausea, balance problems, dizziness, fuzzy vision, or sensitivity to light or noise; feel sluggish or groggy; have concentration or memory problems; or just feel confused. If you forget sequences, answer questions slowly, lose consciousness, show behavior or personality changes, or are incapable of recalling the event prior to or after a blow to the head, see a doctor immediately.
Doctors use a combination of techniques to diagnose a concussion. One method, the ImPACT test, has been adopted by the NFL, NHL and Cirque du Soleil. It assesses the severity of the concussion quickly. When combined with a neurological exam and an interview, the ImPACT test helps a doctor to arrive at a diagnosis.
My neurological exam was painless and surprisingly fun. I had to stick out my tongue, make faces, remember words and stand on one leg. The exam can also include an interview regarding your physical, emotional, cognitive and sleep function. By testing these activities, a doctor is able to comprehensively assess brain function. She may also use a CT scan or MRI to further investigate a concussion if she suspects structural injury or bleeding.
The Center for Disease Control recommends that anyone who experiences any signs or symptoms of a concussion after a blow to the head not exercise until cleared by a health care professional. Continuing activities that increase symptoms can seriously delay your recovery. I was instructed to not watch a movie, listen to loud music, read, raise my heart rate or go upside-down (like in a handstand).
Most importantly, I was told to do nothing that would put me at risk of getting a second concussion. Not recovering fully from the initial concussion is extremely dangerous—it makes you particularly vulnerable to recurrent, cumulative and catastrophic consequences of a second injury. A secondary concussion can cause your symptoms (headaches, dizziness, inability to concentrate, memory problems) to linger for months, or even years.
There is no recipe for treatment or for returning to dancing. Dr. Randy Peoples, a neuro-surgeon who works with Cirque du Soleil, says each case is different. Recovery is influenced by many factors including age, preexisting conditions or previous concussions.
Stay alert and communicate with your fellow dancers. Use pads and have spotters when attempting new lifts. Don’t rush backstage! You can run into another dancer, a technician or even a backstage lighting fixture. A concussion that goes untreated could jeopardize your career—not to mention cause permanent damage to your health! So keep your eyes open, your stage and studio area safe—and your noggin intact.