Concussion History from World War I to the Present Day



You might know the term “concussion” in some capacity. Even if you don’t know too much about them, you at least know that it’s a word the medical community uses to describe a head injury. You also might know there are more and less serious ones.

In this article, we’ll delve into concussion history, from the term’s origin up to the present day. We’ll also explain why concussions are so dangerous.

Shell Shock

World War I saw plenty of fighting where soldiers were around explosions. These artillery explosions could easily blow off a limb, but even if a mortar shell didn’t directly hit a soldier, an explosion could send them flying through the air. The soldier might hit their head extremely hard, which could cause brain damage, even if the affected individual was wearing a helmet.

Concussions from an explosion shock wave would sometimes kill a soldier, but there would not be a mark on them. The brain would move inside the skull as the shell detonated. This concussive effect of the brain colliding with the skull’s interior was something that doctors hadn’t seen much of before.

Medics came up with the term “shell shock” to describe a new injury variety. About 10% of British battle casualties were shell shock or neurasthenia victims.  

A Large-Scale Medical Research Effort

World War I had an unintended effect. The medics had a chance to study a completely new injury type, or what they perceived to be completely new.

In reality, “shell shock,” which doctors would later call a concussion, had existed and afflicted many individuals before WW I. However, this was the first time so many people were dealing with it during the same period.

A large-scale medical research effort on the medics’ part was necessary because they had to figure out how to treat what they were seeing. They understood that brain injuries were happening in soldiers who were near explosions. What they didn’t comprehend yet was the injury’s extent, nor precisely what they could do about it.

The Symptoms

Certain soldiers who came away from battles sometimes appeared more or less unscathed. They would have very little physical, observable damage. Still, they experienced dizziness, headaches, amnesia, and other troubling symptoms.

Doctors who examined these men realized that a device going off near them had a concussive effect. They knew that it was the shock wave that was harming the soldiers.

What they didn’t understand yet was that there was a physical cause to what was happening. The brain was striking the skull’s interior. There was something physical causing what they saw, yet they thought that “shell shock” was more of a psychological condition than anything else.

The doctors couldn’t see the affected solder’s brains. They could not see the swelling that often took place when a bomb went off next to one of these individuals.

The Problem’s Complexity

WW I doctors came to understand the complexity of the issue they were seeing. These men might seem okay to the naked eye, but whatever was going on with them, they couldn’t just walk it off after a few days.

Shell shock caused more than 1/7 of all British Army discharges during this era. Thousands of soldiers who seemed to be whole and unharmed collected pensions and went home.

The doctors didn’t think these men were faking their condition. The medical personnel didn’t understand yet exactly what it was they were observing and documenting.

The British Army higher-ups eventually banned the “shell shock” diagnosis. They didn’t comprehend the physical damage that these men were suffering, and they didn’t want to lose any more money paying them off.

What They Knew Then Vs. What We Know Now

Now, more than a hundred years later, we know that “shell shock,” or a concussion, is not entirely a physical or psychological condition. It is both.

You may not be able to notice a concussion with the naked eye in the same way you can see a broken bone. However, a physical aspect to it exists. The brain bouncing around inside the skull causes swelling.

Even when the swelling goes down, the incident may do permanent damage. This is what doctors mean when they talk about more or less severe concussions.

Someone might sustain a single, mild concussion. They might have to deal with headaches for a few days. They may have some short-term memory loss, or they might feel nauseous. They may vomit or feel dizzy.

In time, though, they should recover. It’s when doctors start talking about more severe concussions that the individual is in more serious danger.

What Happens with More Severe Concussions?

If someone sustains a more severe concussion, permanent brain damage is what we’re discussing. They might have any of the symptoms we already mentioned, but you can also add some considerably worse ones.

Someone who sustains a severe concussion might have to deal with mood swings. They may suffer from depression or personality changes.

Soldiers still have to deal with concussions if a bomb goes off near them, and the brain collides with the skull’s interior. However, doctors also see concussions in other situations.

They might see a concussion after a slip-and-fall accident. They could see concussions if a football or soccer player comes in, complaining of these symptoms after a violent on-field collision.

Doctors can now see a concussion’s physical damage much more clearly than was possible during World War I. They also know that concussions are a complex issue, having both physical and psychological components.

The short answer to why people change like they do when they sustain concussions is because they’ve damaged their brains. The human brain shouldn’t knock against the skull’s interior, and when it does, the many adverse effects should not surprise us.

Doctors knew concussions were dangerous more than a hundred years ago, and they know it now. If you sustain one, it can change your life dramatically, even if it is one of the so-called “mild” varieties.

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