Concussions and Snowboarding

Melissa Brandner and Manuela Mandl discuss the seriousness of head injuries

Disclaimer: This is not another “should we be wearing a helmet or not” debate.

Head injuries are one of the most common traumas in snowboarding, hence the forever on-going debate on “should we wear a helmet or not”. Melissa Brandner and Manuela Mandl have both faced snowboard related traumas. Last February, Melissa suffered a severe concussion and trauma to her chest muscles and back. This resulted in difficulties breathing and walking.

“Most people do not want to accept that they need to take a break after suffering from a concussion, resulting in people going on about their lives without letting their body and mind rest”

In 2018, Manuela suffered from two concussions with the second being a particularly heavy one. Inspired by their traumas, ‘Through Darkness’ became a project through which they wanted to raise awareness around the seriousness of concussions, how hard it can be to deal with the injury itself, and the aftermath.

As with any topic that touches upon mental health, the physical effects of sports injuries can often be difficult to discuss. With this in mind, Melissa and Manuela have been pleasantly surprised by the feedback they’ve gained through the film. “Many people have come up to us and talked about similar experiences. People have opened up and told us that they felt like they were alone before they heard from us, and this is a huge deal,” says Melissa.

We sat down with the two to talk about concussions, trauma and how the lack of awareness regarding severe injuries can affect us on both physical and mental levels. As Manuela tells us, “it isn’t only about overcoming the injury, but also about how to deal with it. Most people do not want to accept that they need to take a break after suffering from a concussion, resulting in people going on about their lives without letting their body and mind rest.”

Melissa Brandner. Photo: Hampus Cederholm.

What was the idea behind the ‘Through Darkness’ project?

MM: In the beginning, it was more about the aesthetics of the polar night and the feeling [of riding in the dark]. But then, the concept slowly transformed to that meaningful thing we kind of lived through and what a great metaphor it would be to use polar night for what happened to us.

“There needs to be so much more talk about this”

MB: We wanted to raise awareness around concussions in snow sports, action sports and how serious they can be and how even small ones can actually cause issues if you don’t take notice of it. But also, just to create more talk and openness about the side effects of sports injuries, especially mental side.

MM: I don’t think it is only about overcoming, it is also about how to deal with it, expecting that you’re going to need a break now, you’re going to have to take it slow. You’re going to have to take out some of the stress from your daily life. If you ignore that your body needs rest, that your mind needs rest, it takes so much longer to recover. Many small concussions after each other can already cause really heavy problems and it’s not visible, it is very hard to make visible even by MRIs and stuff. Every person is different.

First of all, you raise awareness about it and how to deal with it and then try to find a strategy to overcome it. There needs to be so much more talk about this. There can also be long term mental side effects and if people don’t know about it… The cause of depression might be a concussion and if you don’t know that, things can become very hard. That’s just one of the side effects.

Melissa Brandner. Photo: Mia Maria knoll / / @miamariaknoll.

After getting injured, how did the fact that you were not able to snowboard affect you?

MB: Me and Manu experienced different things with our concussions. After mine, which wasn’t only a concussion, it was also a trauma into all of my chest muscles and my back and stuff, I had difficulty breathing and walking. I couldn’t get to the supermarket or anything for two months. I knew I wanted to go back to snowboarding, and I wanted to heal, so I took it really seriously the rest, but I also lived very in the presence. I just wanted to be able to go and buy some milk or, be able to make dinner.

“I just wanted to be able to go and buy some milk or, be able to make dinner”

I think, having a sport, or training for a sport means that you have that drive to get back there. Snowboarding kind of helped you through the injury in a way since the feeling of snowboarding is amazing and I wanted to be able to do that again.

MM: For me it was different because it was in spring when I got injured, so it was the end of the season and there wasn’t really any snowboarding to be done. But I couldn’t really do any sports for quite a while which was really hard for me. My head just wanted to rest, and it didn’t like any vibrations or jumping or even my heartbeat going up to a certain point. I. wasn’t really sure how long it would take to go back to normal with balance and stuff. But I think that’s the other thing, like most injuries, also the brain heals if you give it time and treat it as good as you can.

Manuela Mandl. Photo: Moritz Ablinger.

How long were you injured for?

MB: Mine happened in February, and I am still in recovery. This is probably the worst phase since I almost feel like myself again. I had a lot of body dissociation early on so I feel like I’ve got my body back, but I can’t push my limits, or I have to like stagger it. If I know that I have a hard workout and a hard workday, I probably need a couple of days off. We’ve got knee-deep snow here now so the season is on, and I know that I can probably only go splitboarding one day a week now whereas I’m used to going at least five days a week.

“But having a head injury, no one can tell you how long it will take to recover”

MM: I got injured in May 2018, and I would say that the acute phase of injury lasted definitely until mid-August.

Do you feel that it takes longer for the mind to recover than it does for the body?

MB: I definitely think so. I think the frustrating thing is that when you have a torn ligament you have a plan and know when you will get better. But having a head injury, no one can tell you how long it will take to recover. They can just tell you that you will recover but they can’t tell you how long it will take.

MM: And also, it [head injury] is not visible. When you’ve got a broken arm, everybody can see it, but with your head, it’s very hard for people to understand that you can’t concentrate anymore because you need a break. It’s super hard for people to relate to it if they haven’t gone through it. I think that was something that helped me a lot, that I used the hashtag post-concussion online and then were friends immediately called me and told me about their experience. That was super helpful. You just have to find out how to deal with it and what to expect. Somebody needs to tell you that. You don’t want to accept that you need a break in the beginning. You don’t actually feel like you need one.

Manuela Mandl. Photo: Moritz Ablinger.

What would you like to tell people who are suffering from similar injuries? Is there something you wish someone would have told you?

MB: Rest. Definitely rest straight away and don’t worry if you’re going to let people down or if it’s going to hold you back in some way. Focus on healing and resting because then your recovery in the long term will be so much shorter. It can take up to two years to recover from a concussion, maybe longer, so do that initial resting. Also, you don’t always get symptoms from a concussion straight away. You could feel fine for like two days and do loads of stuff before you notice anything.

“It can take up to two years to recover from a concussion, maybe longer, so do that initial resting”

MM: Seek professional help. Let the people who’ve already dealt with people suffering from concussion have a good look at you. Go through a strategy on how to deal with it [concussion] straight away, do not wait with that. My short-term memory was affected really badly. Nobody would really believe me, I wouldn’t even believe me, and then when I did a test the outcome was quite clear.

MB: It kind of gives you peace of mind because you can trust these people, which is a huge trigger for those kinds of injuries. If you feel like you’ve got professional help there to support you to take your stress away, it makes a big difference. People are afraid to search for help sometimes. It is hard to talk about these things, but once you start talking and you’ve got other people who’ve experienced similar things it helps.

Melissa Brandner. Photo: Hampus Cederholm.

How did the injuries affect your lives?

MB: It made me focus on myself and care for myself. I became super positive in my thinking, which I’ve always been quite critical in before because I am a scientist. It gave me a whole new outlook on life. It’s going to suck for everyone who’s going through a concussion in the beginning, but it is going to take you into a different direction. Me and Manu have learned a lot about ourselves through our concussions. I’ve learned a lot about my mind and overcoming fear, which is quite cool, like controlling anxiety, which will be really great in my competitions next year.

“The problem with small concussions is that they already affect your actions, and you’re more likely to crash again”

MM: It’s important for the both of us to make people aware that it [concussion] is a serious issue and it can affect you a lot, but that it will also get better and that you’re going to heal at some point. You just need to be patient. There’s actually a chance to transform your life and do things you appreciate and enjoy and do these with people you want to have around. One is also allowed to learn so much about meditation and diet and everything that affects your body when you’re injured.

Also, be aware of small concussions too. There are so many people crashing all the time. And even if t they’re not passing out most of them are definitely having small concussions. The problem with small concussions is that they already affect your actions, and you’re more likely to crash again, right afterwards, or in the next hours afterwards or even in the next couple of days. You should always try and feel in your head ‘did that affect me’ and if it did, then take a little break.

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