parenting

Head Bumps and Mental Health: Is There a Connection?

Head Bump 1 smallHave you ever had a bump on the noggin? Has your child? Nearly everyone has bumped their head at one point or another, and this is a subject everyone needs to know a little more about.

March is Brain Injury Awareness month. Mental health and head trauma may not seem to be related. You may be thinking, ‘What does any of this have to do with me or my children?” The answer is—everything.

Dr. Daniel Amen of amenclinics.com scans human brains, and has documented more head injuries than anyone else in the world. In his experience there is no such thing as an inconsequential head bump. In books, PBS specials, and TED talks he has referred to numerous case histories of folks he has scanned whose lives changed dramatically from what might seem to be “minor childhood head injuries.”

Consider the case history of one set of identical twins. Identical twins have the same genes, the same parents, and the same home background and upbringing. One twin was personally and financially successful: a happily married mom of three who worked in journalism. The other could barely finish high school, struggled with lifelong depression, and had such difficult temper issues that her jobs and relationships were sabotaged at every turn. The difference? The depressed, angry twin had fallen out of the top bunk of their bunk bed when she was 10 years old. The brain injury from that fall and the changes it caused were still visible in adulthood.

I don’t cite this example to discourage bunk bed sales. Nor do I mean to infer that every depressed or angry person should ‘blame’ their condition on the bump on the head they received when they fell off their bike or the monkey bars. Rather, this is to call attention to the fact that we need more awareness and prevention when it comes to protecting our skulls and the precious brains they carry—both our own and those of the loved ones in our care.

Dr. Amen reminds his readers that “the brain is soft, and the skull is hard.” Our skulls have bony projections inside that can severely damage the soft brain when we suffer a blow, bump, fall, or even ‘head-banging’ behaviors we see in many teens enjoying their music. One does not have to suffer concussion to injure their brain and suffer lifelong consequences.

Blows to different areas of the skull can cause different problems. A few years ago I went out to the Amen Clinic in Orange County, California and had my brain scanned. The results were fascinating—we discovered that an injury from childhood had played a huge role in the severity of my dyslexia. And that injury still has a tremendous impact on my day-to-day life.

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When our brain works right, we work right. When our brain is troubled, we are troubled. It’s that simple. Several brain areas are especially vulnerable to trauma, especially the parts involved with memory, learning, and mood stability.

With 100 billion neurons (nerve cells), and up to 40,000 synapses, or connections, between each cell, that’s more than the number of stars in the known universe! It’s difficult to imagine such complexity. The combination of our genes and our environment superimposed on all this grand complexity means that we each have thousands of possible ‘trapdoors’ in our brain that may or may not spring open, exposing us to troubling mental health issues. Even an injury affecting a piece of the brain the size of a grain of sand would damage 100,000 brain cells and a billion synapses. Thus the need to focus today on doing as much as is humanly possible to protect our most robust yet most vulnerable body part—our brain.

What are some practical steps we can take to prevent brain injury?

  • Wear seat belts in the car, and make sure your child is either belted in or properly fastened into an age-appropriate car seat that’s belted in. Always.
  • Wear a helmet for bike riding or other sports. Always.
  • Stay off the roof.
  • Teach your kids not to jump on the bed or other furniture, and make sure there are consequences for breaking the rules.
  • Only allow an older child to hold an infant under careful supervision. I know one family whose 6-year-old dropped her newborn sibling 5 times (!) over the course of a few months. The sibling now has severe epilepsy as a result of the head traumas.
  • Don’t roughhouse in areas where there is furniture or an architectural detail with sharp corners.
  • Follow posted playground safety rules and supervise your kids.
  • Check out the the Amen Clinic’s page for even more tips for brain health.

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