Tracy Morgan’s SNL Return Draws Attention to TBI Myths

Last month, superstar comedian Tracy Morgan returned to the stage of NBC Studio 8H to appear on Saturday Night Live. His initial entrance, marked by clumsy movements, garbled speech and a blank-eyed stare, cut short the audience’s instinctive laughter into a fringe of nervous chuckles. From the sound of it, everyone was asking themselves: “Is this real? Is he okay? Is he…really not okay? Why did they let him on the show if he’s not okay?”

Morgan quickly let them in on the joke. The jerky motions and catatonic stare were an act. Morgan is recovering nicely from his traumatic brain injury in June 2014, able to move and speak in much the same way he always did.

“People were wondering, ‘Can he speak? Does he have 100% mental capacity?’ But the truth is I never did! I might actually be a few points higher now.” –Tracy Morgan on his recent TBI recovery.

For those who love Tracy Morgan, it was all in good fun. But for any viewers who live with TBI or care for someone who does, the episode may have sparked conflicting feelings. While we rejoice at a TBI victim’s recovery, it can easily spawn comparisons between their situation and our own. And while members of the TBI community have often emphasized the importance of humor to temper the challenges of daily life, it isn’t always comfortable to see it offered to people who have no idea what the experience of TBI is really like.

In the past, we published responses to various myths about TBI. This seemed like a good occasion to revisit those myths, along with a few more that have cropped up in recent years.

Myth: Brain injury comes from hitting your head.

Fact: Causes of traumatic brain injury center around the impact of the brain against the skull—but it doesn’t take a blow to the head to cause this. For example, being rear-ended in a car accident might not cause your head to hit anything, but could still result in a TBI.

Myth: TBI is immediately recognizable by a change in the victim’s behavior or consciousness.

Fact: TBI is not necessarily accompanied by a loss of consciousness. In fact, TBI victims will oftentimes walk away from the accident, be able to talk about what happened, and seem to be unharmed. The onset of symptoms such as headache and confusion can occur hours or even days after the incident, and issues may only become clear while the victim is involved in certain tasks or environments.

Myth: All people with TBI have the same symptoms.

Fact: Since TBI can affect different areas throughout the brain, there is no standard set of symptoms for patients. Symptoms are affected by the type and location of injury. Characteristics, such as physical condition, age and gender of the patient, also have bearing on the severity of symptoms and time necessary for recovery.

Myth: “Mild” traumatic brain injury is no big deal.

Fact: While TBIs are commonly classified as mild, moderate or severe, mild brain injuries are no less traumatic. They can have serious implications, especially if they are sustained repeatedly (as is often the case with atletes). TBI impacts the victim’s memory, learning, adaptation and personality.

Myth: If the MRI, CT Scan or EEG study comes back clean, there is no real brain injury.

Fact: According to the Brain Injury Association of America, scans from routine tests are often fail to detect mild brain injury. This is because the damage done is often to the neural connections in the brain, which means it may not involve any swelling or bleeding.

For example, the disease made infamous by so many NFL players—chronic traumatic encephalopathy—cannot be traced by routine tests. It can only be diagnosed by staining the brain tissue post-mortem.

Myth: TBI results in loss of the victim’s IQ.

Fact: In the past, psychologists would declare patients recovered from TBI because they showed normal results on IQ tests. Now it is widely known that IQ testing covers a narrow range of cognitive abilities. To accurately determine cognitive issues after TBI, it’s necessary for victims to undergo multiple neuropsychological tests.

This objective process covers a much wider range of cognitive abilities than traditional IQ testing. It can reveal deficits that aren’t as easily noticed. In addition, this testing is useful for measuring how cognitive issues change over time.

As recently as 2004, the misconceptions about TBI were prevalent even among many in the medical field. The result was detrimental to the recovery of patients, who reentered community, settings still dealing with incomplete recoveries, yet expected to perform at the same level as before their injury took place.

The Archives of Clinical Psychology put it with no uncertainty:

“Given the complexity of this injury and the myriad of deficits it may produce, sufficient knowledge about head trauma and its effects are essential to provide proper care.”

With the greater visibility of TBI through outspoken victims like Tracy Morgan, the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves. Long-needed conclusive research and establishment of best practices continues to help patients get their lives back. That is something we can all applaud.

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