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Easing Concussion Symptoms with Psychedelics

Four athletes share their success stories

Damon Orion

The message that “drugs are dangerous” has always been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it helps guide the youth away from some of life’s darker alleys. On the other, as a blanket statement, it has promoted a widespread assumption that all consciousness-altering substances are inherently evil. Leaving aside issues of unjust incarceration and social castigation, this has cut countless people off from the potential benefits of psychedelics.

Thanks in no small part to the mainstream media’s vigorous coverage of the psychedelic renaissance, the stigma around these medicines is starting to dissolve, and with it, the notion that they’re just another way to get “f*cked up.” Truth be told, they’re exactly what some people need to get un-f*cked-up.   

Case in point: Concussion sufferers of all kinds, including combat veterans, are finding relief in medicinal psychedelic use. On a strictly physical level, much of that can be chalked up to the apparent capacity of these compounds to decrease inflammation and to promote neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, brain complexity and neuronal connectivity. 

A growing number of athletes are coming forward with testimonies to their successful use of psychedelics to ease symptoms of concussions and other types of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Here’s what four such athletes told us about the pivotal role these medicines have played in their recoveries. 

Owen Painter

In the biographical drama Concussion, forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) explains that when a fast-moving football player takes a blow to the head from another fast-moving player, the impact is equal to that of a strike to the helmet with a sledgehammer. 

Throughout roughly four years as a college football player, offensive lineman Owen Painter endured countless such collisions. The resulting damage eventually manifested in physical symptoms such as headaches, brain fog and head pressure. After graduating from the University of West Georgia in 2019, Painter was also overcome with debilitating depression and suicidal thoughts, likely stemming from brain injury-induced inflammation.  

“I started doing research on CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy], and I was 100% convinced that I had it,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I'm done. I'm gonna die. I'm gonna kill myself. I’m going to donate my brain, and they're gonna find [CTE].” 

Painter eventually got the healing he needed at a retreat center in Florida called Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth. The turning point for him was a grueling purge during a medicine ceremony. 

“It felt like I was releasing all the depression and anxiety and pain,” he says. “I could just feel it coming out of me.” 

More ayahuasca ceremonies followed, along with some deeply therapeutic experiences with LSD, psilocybin and San Pedro cactus. 

Painter feels every psychedelic he’s taken has helped with the physical symptoms of TBI. “I still have some of them, but they're nowhere near as debilitating as they used to be,” he notes.   

The athlete adds, “It's hard to put into words how much things have changed for me. Back in 2019, if you had told me I’d still be here, I wouldn't have believed you.” 

Now a firefighter, Painter takes satisfaction in giving back to the community. “It's very rewarding to have come full circle,” he offers. “I fought for my life, and I'm here now, doing the best I can to make an impact on people.”  

Daniel Carcillo 

Former Chicago Blackhawks winger Daniel “Car Bomb” Carcillo’s story is perhaps an even more powerful illustration of the promise these medicines hold for concussion sufferers. 

During his 12 years as a National Hockey League player, Carcillo was diagnosed with seven concussions, but he estimates the unofficial amount at somewhere in the hundreds. This left the two-time Stanley Cup winner with slurred speech, insomnia, headaches, head pressure, memory loss, concentration issues, mild dementia, light sensitivity, loss of impulse control, depression and anxiety.   

“I was extremely suicidal and at the end of my rope, because I thought I’d tried everything,” he says. 

With the help of retired NHL player Riley Cote, who has been candid about successfully using psychedelics for relief from concussion symptoms, Carcillo found his way to psilocybin as a possible means of mitigating the manifestations of his TBI. In 2019, he ingested 5.5 grams of the medicine—a “heroic dose,” in the late, great Terence McKenna’s terminology. 

The results were almost too good to be true: Carcillo’s light sensitivity, slurred speech and brain fog vanished immediately. Within about a week, every one of his symptoms either diminished in intensity or all but faded away.

After that breakthrough, Carcillo continued to take low doses of psilocybin. He also had two more high-dose sessions, three months apart from one another. Subsequent brain scans showed no abnormalities, and his bloodwork was completely clear. 

These tests were just confirmations of what was already obvious to Carcillo. “I looked 20 years younger, and I was more connected to myself and to my family, more patient,” he attests. “I was sleeping great; I was starting to be more creative; I started working again; I had more energy; I was working out; I was making better decisions.” 

Carcillo’s bloodwork and brain scans continue to be clear every six months. “I’m completely cured,” he proclaims, “and I would take it a step further: I'm by far the highest operating version of myself … and I was a professional athlete for 12 years.” 

The former hockey player, who says ayahuasca has also been helpful in his healing process, has dedicated his life to “showing how you can use this medicine and regain your quality of life.” Among other things, he has used his platform to support Initiative 81, the Decriminalize Nature campaign and statewide programs like Measure 109 and Proposition 122. As the founder of the life science company Wesana Health, he has built an FDA drug development program and raised money to create a synthetic version of the medicine that has helped rehabilitate him. 

Anna Symonds

As a pro rugby player from her late teens until age 40, Anna Symonds amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, including four national championship victories with the Portland Hunters. 

Unfortunately, between her rugby career, the soccer she played as a kid, a few years of mixed martial arts and a couple of nasty car crashes, she has also sustained somewhere between half a dozen and 10 concussions. The severe long-term effects of this have included constant headaches, nausea, vertigo and brain fog.

Symonds feels that cannabinoids and psychedelic medicines like psilocybin, LSD, 5-MeO-DMT and ayahuasca have helped repair and restore some of her mental and emotional faculties. 

“I feel like my brain is functioning better,” she offers. “I feel like my thinking is clearer than it was for many years.”

She also credits these inner journeys with helping her to address deep traumas. “That's an ongoing thing, of course,” she notes. “It's not like, ‘Okay, I fixed that. It's gone,’ but the steps that I have been able to take forward with psychedelic medicines vastly dwarf the benefits that I’ve had from talk therapy.” 

Symonds, now the program manager for the Etheridge Foundation and an ambassador for the nonprofits Athletes for CARE, the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the Last Prisoner Project, believes that the mental, emotional and spiritual healings she’s gotten from psychedelics are inseparable from one another. 

“As an athlete, you can have a good performance physically for a while, but it’s not sustainable if those other things aren’t in tune,” she says. “At some point, you're going to crash, and you're going to have to address the deficit that’s there.” 

Koa Smith

In 2018, pro surfer Koa Smith was at the top of his game. He’d recently ridden a wave at Skeleton Bay, Namibia for two full minutes, passing through a staggering eight barrels. While enjoying all the glories and goodies that this kind of record-setting feat can bring, he found himself in Nias, Indonesia, where a closeout wave sent him flying from his board.

As shown in the MUD\FILMS documentary Resurfacing, a rendezvous between Smith’s head and a coral reef left the surfer with severe concussion symptoms like nausea, dizziness, depression and acute disorientation, to the point where he literally couldn’t remember his own name. 

“You have no idea where you are; you don't know who you are; you don't know what's going on,” he explains. “It’s almost like you just landed on another planet and you don't know anything.”  

Smith also found himself hypersensitive to stress, light and noise. “I went outside, and I’d have to wear noise-cancelling headphones and play some Mozart or something,” he recalls. 

Many of these symptoms abated over time, but Smith continued to grapple with crippling depression, giving rise to unshakable thoughts of suicide.

Then came the life-changing event that snuffed his depression once and for all. In a beautiful, remote spot on Kauai, he took psilocybin mushrooms with his brother. This gave him what he describes as “a guided healing plan,” inspiring him to drop unhealthy habits and adopt a steady regimen of practices such as meditation and breathwork. 

The trip also reconnected Smith to his childhood self. “It just reaffirmed to me that I have so much love in my heart and that I'm a good person,” he says. “I never felt depression again after that one experience. I was able to start surfing pipes again, start just getting my life back on track.” 

Smith, who also mentions that a brain stimulation device from a company called Wave Neuro has played a crucial part in his rehabilitation, recommends that those who embark on the psychedelic adventure do so in nature under the guidance of someone who has experience with psychedelics. He feels these conditions will “allow you to feel safe enough to open up, open your gates, let down your guard and then really get the healing that you need.” 

Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist, and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work at damonorion.com

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