Concussions: USC setter Mullahey’s career ended from hit in head

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Michael Mullahey sets for USC/USC photo

Michael Mullahey is a former USC men’s setter from Manhattan Beach. He was hit in the head in practice in October 2016 and has been recovering since. This is his story:

To be honest, my concussion journey started well before I got hit in the head, well before the daily migraines and fogginess, and well before my career ended.

Getting hit in the head is a pretty commonplace event in volleyball, and looking back I would have a hard time counting how many times I’ve witnessed teammates, opponents, and even parents on the sidelines get hit in the head.

concussions

In college, I saw teammates struggle with concussions, but candidly, I was incredibly naïve. I just thought that concussions meant headaches, and never really understood why that person couldn’t just take a couple Advil, suck it up, and get back on the court. For better or for worse, I now understand firsthand that this naivety and ignorance could not be further from the truth.

In the fall of 2016 at USC, I got hit in the head (by the ball) during practice while blocking an overpass. I remember getting hit hard, but according to teammates, the ball hit the ceiling before I hit the ground!

I remember immediately feeling incredibly off and having a feeling, as they say, like I got my “bell rung.” After I got diagnosed with the concussion, I honestly expected the injury to heal in a few days, maybe a week at most.

However, days turned into weeks, weeks to months and months to more than a year. And although today I am finally feeling like myself again and almost back to 100 percent, getting to this point has been incredibly difficult, frustrating, and trying.

Some of the major symptoms that accompany a concussion and post concussion syndrome (PCS is defined by the Concussion Legacy Foundation as the persistence of concussion symptoms beyond the normal course of recovery) can include but not limited to: Migraines/headaches, neck pain, visual issues, light sensitivity, nausea, dizziness, fogginess, cognitive issues, emotional issues, memory loss, slurred speech, and fatigue.

And early on I struggled with many of these symptoms.

Michael Mullahey

Although some symptoms came and went, for several months the migraines, fogginess, and dizziness seemed to be constant.  Unfortunately with concussions, your whole life is affected. I felt the symptoms walking to class, standing up, talking to friends, listening to music, and even sleeping. I would often wake up in the middle of the night due to the sheer pain and agony of the migraines. 

Over time, and more importantly thanks to the great team of neurologists, optometrists/ophthalmologists, physical therapists, and others, I made incredible progress. Two significant moments in my recovery process were having my eyes checked and getting my neck diagnosed.

I had no idea that concussions can also come with other injuries, but visual issues are incredibly common, but often not diagnosed with concussions. However, it makes sense, as our visual cortex is located in the back of our brain. Often times after a concussion, the visual system is thrown “out of whack” and the eyes may have a hard time converging or diverging causing issues such as headaches, eye strain, trouble focusing, and trouble reading.  Working primarily with Dr. Charles Flowers at USC, I started visual exercises, or visual PT if you will. Although these exercises may seem simple, they can be (and were) incredibly difficult at first. These exercises work on retraining the visual system in working together, while at the same time, working on your peripheral vision. Over time, these exercises have made a huge difference and have really helped me progress and feel better.

In addition to the visual issues, I was having constant neck pain that would either cause or add into the pain of the migraines. To be honest, I just thought my neck hurt because maybe I was sleeping wrong, or it was a side affect of the migraines. However, after being sent to one of USC’s spine specialists, we realized that there was a neck injury in addition to the concussion. And similar to the visual issues following a concussion, having a neck injury and concussion makes sense. If you have a force that is strong enough to cause an injury to your brain, the odds are that the force is strong enough to impact your neck. With the guidance of Dr. Robert Watkins and the many physical therapists I worked with (especially those at Kerlan Jobe’s Concussion Clinic) I started to make incredible progress.

Fortunately or unfortunately, concussions and the other “injuries” that may follow (i.e. visual and/or neck issues) are all connected. Thus, although it made things difficult at first, especially from a rehab perspective, but once one or two of the injuries started to get better, the others followed. This became blatantly apparent during many of the PT sessions. At first, I couldn’t change directions or really move my head without feeling incredibly dizzy and lightheaded. To be honest, there were so many little things that became difficult, including standing up and sitting down, or even moving my head side to side. So much so that we often had to keep a trash can near by in case the exercises would cause the intense nausea that would often follow. However, as my visual issues started to slowly get better, I was able to do more during my PT sessions. I could slowly start to handle changing directions and moving my head, as my visual system was finally able to keep up. And as both my eyes and neck started to feel better, the other concussion symptoms (especially the migraines) started to progress and improve.

Thankfully, I have made incredible improvement, so much so that I feel like I am nearly 100 percent.  Early on, I was in a constant state of pain and discomfort due to the symptoms. However, with the help of the team of medical staff, and most of my original symptoms are gone, and thankfully able will be able to start working full time this fall.

I’ve learned that concussions and post-concussion syndrome cannot only be incredibly difficult to deal with, but also incredibly difficult to treat for several reasons.

First, not every concussion and brain are the same. The more I have talked to doctors and others who have struggled with concussions, the more this has become apparent. For example, depending on the injury and person some concussions may be more vestibular based (i.e. balance issues, vertigo, blurred vision), physiological based (i.e. headaches, cognitive issues) and/or cervicogenic based (i.e. neck pain, lightheadedness, and proprioception issues).

Second, because no injury is the same, it is difficult to have a consistent and effective treatment plan that will help everyone. Although I have found different types of treatments that worked for me, it may not be that helpful for someone else.

Lastly, concussions are invisible injuries.

It is easy to understand that someone with a cast on their leg is injured, or that someone with a sprained ankle is in pain. However, without putting a cast on a concussed person’s head (which I don’t recommend), it can be incredibly difficult to understand that the person has been injured, especially when they may look and talk fine. And further adding to this invisibility, concussions do not show up on typical MRI or CT scans.

It is clear that there is not an easy answer to concussions. There isn’t a pill that makes you better overnight (or not yet at least, I am still keeping my fingers crossed). The medical and sports worlds are just starting to scratch the surface into concussion research, which leads me to feel incredibly optimistic that not only will we learn more about the injury itself, but also find consistent treatment plans that may prevent long term issues.

That being said, I am not sure there is answer to preventing concussions, especially in volleyball. Although football may be trying its own preventive measures, there really aren’t any preventive measures that may help in volleyball. According to a recent study, the majority of concussions in NCAA volleyball are caused by the ball hitting a player’s head.

And although I cannot speak for everyone, I think it is safe to assume that the majority of these injuries are accidental. Short of making everyone wear helmets, or penalizing hits to the head, there aren’t too many ways to prevent volleyball-related concussions. Thus, I would hope that the research would focus on the recovery aspect to concussions.

I have seen firsthand how treatments such as vestibular/balance therapy, visual therapy, and changes in diet/supplements, among many other treatments, can have an incredibly significant impact. Research has been showing that there are better treatments rather than just leaving recovery up to time and rest (although necessary). But again, the research is just starting to scratch the surface.

To the coaches who may have a player dealing with a concussion, or to those who may have a teammate going through a concussion, it may be difficult to understand, but I would recommend trying to be as supportive as possible. It may be useful to read up on the subject, to try and understand what that person is going through, as it can be incredibly difficult for them to not only deal with the symptoms, but also dealing with everything from trying to get through school, not being around the team (and not having much social life for that matter), and even, such as in my case, and many others, having their careers ended by these injuries.

To those who are going through a concussion and/or post concussion syndrome, know that you are NOT alone. There are many people who have gone through and may still be going through what you are dealing with. This recovery process can be incredibly difficult and thus I would recommend surrounding yourself with a strong support system (something I was very fortunate to have), be your own best advocate, and whatever you do, do not give up, it will get better.

Contact Michael Mullahey at mmullahey5@gmail.com

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