This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of On The Level.
How Braxton Overcame His Dizziness to Keep Playing Hockey
“I really don’t know how I was able to play hockey,” remarks Braxton. He is a college aged hockey player, but he has an added challenge that the other players don’t. Braxton also lives with vestibular dysfunction.
Growing Up Dizzy
Braxton grew up on the ice. He learned to ice skate when he was only four years old. But it wasn’t long after he started skating that his dizzy spells began. By the time Braxton was in the 5th grade, he had seen several specialists and was diagnosed with what they thought at the time might be Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo.
As a young hockey player, he experienced dizzy attacks that prevented him from practicing or participating in games. Braxton recalls “There were a few times when I got really dizzy on the ice, that was when my anxiety with the dizziness got really bad. I would come off the ice and I would have to leave the game because I just… I could not do it.”
More Than Dizziness
It wasn’t just the dizziness that made it difficult for him to play hockey. Braxton also experienced severe vision and cognitive impairment because of his vestibular dysfunction. As a defenseman, he makes fast-paced strategic decisions that affect the outcome of the game. But these cognitive impacts and visual difficulties made it impossible to play.
Braxton explains, “It’s a lot of tracking with your vision. The florescent lights would always throw me off. And there’s a lot of movement going on. There’s a little rubber puck, and people are shooting 70 or 80 miles an hour shots. It’s a fast-paced game. I used to have severe brain fog when I was trying to play hockey, and you just can’t do it. It didn’t feel right, and I couldn’t play right.”
Braxton spent his 5th-grade year going to physical therapy, but his symptoms did not improve. He became resigned to living with the dizziness, brain fog, and visual difficulties forever.
But that didn’t let his symptoms stop him from playing hockey. He explains, “I got used to not feeling right, being imbalanced, and not grounded. All these issues, they kind of became normal to me. I was like, ‘I guess I just gotta get used to this.’ I ended up just pushing through.”
When Things Got Worse
After years of fighting through dizzy attacks, and struggling with vision impairment, brain fog, and anxiety, things finally reached a breaking point.
Braxton was a senior in high school when he started experiencing a new set of symptoms: depersonalization and derealization (DPDR).
Braxton describes these symptoms by recalling “I just didn’t feel like myself. It sounds weird, but I almost didn’t feel real. Like my movements weren’t my movements, my thoughts were not my thoughts. It’s kind of like brain fog, but even worse. You question who you are. It’s very confusing, but it’s a really scary feeling. You’re not yourself.”
He didn’t understand why he was having those terrifying feelings. He became depressed and experienced constant free-floating anxiety – a sense of worry and unease that isn’t focused on any specific thing or event.
“You ask yourself, ‘why am I feeling anxiety?’ If there’s nothing to feel anxious about, you start to think, ‘there’s got to be something,’ and then you correlate it with something that has nothing to do with your anxiety. Then you start creating more problems for yourself,” he explains.
When the DPDR started, Braxton realized it was time to get help. He found a new doctor who identified the connection between his history of vestibular dysfunction and these new psychological symptoms. They gave him an accurate diagnosis, and he got started with a new physical therapist who knew how to help him.
Braxton is now in college and plays on his school’s hockey team. Since starting physical therapy he has become an even better hockey player. “With the physical therapy it’s a lot easier to read the game,” he explains.
He has also adopted new coping strategies to keep his symptoms from flaring. He knows that if he has a busy day, he will have dizziness and vision fatigue in the evenings. So, he paces himself by taking just a few classes at a time and prioritizing rest.
Although his symptoms may still occasionally come back, now that he has gotten the right treatment for his condition, he feels better than ever.