Kara | Ross Township, PA
Kara, 55, was waiting for traffic to pass before turning into her Ross Township driveway when a driver came over the hill, ramming her car from behind. Her head slammed into the headrest as the air bag deployed.
Initially diagnosed with bulging cervical discs, a sprained wrist, and possible concussion, Kara was released from the emergency department. Four days later, her head began hurting “in a weird way,” so she saw a neurologist who, after a CT scan, found no signs of anything serious.
She returned to her job as assistant to the president at a local non-profit, but struggled with increasing symptoms, including:
- Difficulty using a computer or talking on the phone
- Inability to watch TV or listen to the radio
- Heightened sensitivity with eye movement
- Nausea (severe with head movement)
- Irritability and tearfulness
- Difficulty sleeping
Kara likened her symptoms to those she experienced while pregnant (morning sickness), following delivery (postpartum blues), and hiking in the Andes Mountains (altitude sickness).
“People didn’t know how much I was struggling,” says Kara. “But I was unraveling. Depression was knocking at my door and I was scared.”
Kara was close to her “tipping point” when a co-worker confided that he’d experienced a concussion years earlier and wondered if she might have one, too.
That same day, a friend called. “She said I didn’t sound like myself and, after learning of my injury, urged me to contact the UPMC Concussion Program where she too had been treated,” says Kara. “I called and got an immediate appointment.”
Kara first saw Michael “Micky” Collins, PhD, clinical and executive director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, who diagnosed a vestibular concussion. He explained that she’d experienced damage on a molecular level, with calcium leaking in and potassium leaking out — like a shaken egg where the outside shell remains unbroken and intact, but the inside contents are misplaced.
“From the first meeting, I felt Dr. Collins described and understood my symptoms better than I did,” says Kara. “He promised me I’d get better; I clung to that.”
Dr. Collins explained that her senses were “keyed up” and she was overreacting to sights, sounds, smells, colors, and flashing lights. He told her what provokes symptoms:
- Going hungry or thirsty
- Not enough sleep
- Lack of exercise
- Too much computer work
“I learned what to do to become desensitized. I had to trust what he was telling me, even when it defied logic,” Kara says.
She followed instructions to stay hydrated, maintain a regular sleep schedule with no napping, and keep her blood sugar level even. In addition, she began walking five miles a day. Back at work, she integrated hourly breaks in her schedule that included walking up and down the steps to get her blood circulating.
As part of her treatment plan, Kara also worked with vestibular therapist Carol Steiner, PT, DPT, at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. Over the next four months, she did targeted exercises that became more challenging as she progressed:
- Standing with her eyes open and closed
- Eye exercises
- Turning her head while walking
- Focusing on a target while walking
- Moving her head from side to side.
“About a month into therapy, I realized I wasn’t as dizzy or nauseous, and I wasn’t as irritable, forgetful, or teary,” she says.
“They [UPMC] gave me the tools to deal with my concussion and manage my symptoms. I went into therapy feeling vulnerable and unreliable, but they gave me confidence. I’m not quite at 100 percent yet, but I’m on my way — and I’m so grateful for the help I received.”
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