If you’ve ever had a head injury or suspected concussion, you may have been warned to stay awake for several hours or to have someone wake you up every hour. This advice stemmed from the belief that falling asleep with a concussion could lead to coma and even death.
Sleeping cannot cause serious problems after a concussion. The danger is that when you are asleep, your family or your doctors are not likely to notice indications of serious brain damage — such as a seizure or weakness of one side of the body.
But is it really necessary to deny yourself sleep following a concussion? In most cases, no. Still, if you have certain symptoms, it’s best to avoid sleeping until you can see a healthcare provider.
Read on to learn more about concussions and sleep, including how to deal with the sleep disturbances that sometimes follow a concussion.
You may have a range of symptoms after mild head trauma, but current medical advice supports getting rest and sleep after a concussion as long as:
- you can carry on a conversation
- you can walk without difficulty
- your pupils aren’t dilated
In fact, experts now recognize rest as an essential part of recovering from a mild head injury, especially during the first three to five days.
But if you don’t fit this criteria, see your healthcare provider right away. Even without any symptoms of a serious concussion, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Children in particular should see a doctor within two days of any head injury other than a mild bump.
If you have a more serious concussion, your healthcare provider may recommend having someone wake you up periodically, but this generally only needs to be done a few times — not every hour.
When you have a concussion, you may feel more tired than usual or need to take brief naps throughout the day. A concussion can also affect your sleep in other ways.
Common sleep issues with concussion include:
- trouble falling asleep
- trouble staying asleep
- feeling tired during the day
These sleep issues generally improve as your injury heals, though this can take up to a few weeks. If you’re still experiencing sleep issues a few weeks after a concussion, talk to your healthcare provider.
To improve your sleep, try these tips:
- Keep a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and getting up around the same time each day.
- Make sure you’re getting at least the recommended amount of sleep. Keep in mind you might need more sleep while recovering.
- Relax before bed with quiet activities, like taking a bath or listening to relaxing music.
- Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet. Keeping your room fairly cool can also promote restful sleep.
- Avoid using electronics or bright lights for at least an hour before going to sleep.
- Avoid naps if possible, especially in the afternoon.
Following a concussion, there are several things you can do to ensure you make a smooth recovery.
Stick to light activity
Walking is generally fine if you feel well enough and it doesn’t make your symptoms worse. But you’ll want to take a break from any activity that raises your heart rate until your healthcare provider approves returning to moderate or intense exercise, such as running or cycling.
You’ll also want to avoid driving for a full day after a concussion. If your symptoms still haven’t improved, you may want to avoid driving even longer. Head injuries can delay your reaction speed, so you may be more likely to have an accident while you are still recovering from a concussion.
You may want to take a day or two off from work or school. If this isn’t possible, consider working shorter days until you begin to recover.
Let your brain rest
School or work tasks that require focus and concentration may be somewhat difficult with a concussion. And trying to work before you’re ready could even make your symptoms worse.
In the first 24 hours after a concussion, you may want to avoid the following activities as much as possible:
- television or video games
- computer use
- reading for work or leisure
- texting or using a smartphone
If you can’t avoid these activities, taking frequent breaks may help keep you from overstimulating your brain.
Avoid certain medications
If you have significant head pain and are considering taking over-the-counter medication, talk to your healthcare provider first.
Medications containing aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen could increase your risk of brain bleeding if you have a more severe concussion. In these cases, acetaminophen (Tylenol) may be a safer option.
If you do take pain relievers, make sure you don’t push yourself too hard. The temporary relief could make you feel good enough that you’ll want to return to your usual activities before you’ve fully recovered.
It may take several days before you begin to feel better after a concussion, but it’s never a bad idea to get your healthcare provider’s advice if you have any concerns about your recovery time.
Symptoms that linger for more than a few weeks can indicate post-concussion syndrome. This is rare if you’ve never had a concussion before, but you’ll want to see your provider for symptoms that persist for more than a week.
Concussions are typically mild, but they can occasionally cause more serious complications. It’s important to monitor signs and symptoms for the first day or two after a head injury.
Seek emergency medical treatment if you:
- vomit multiple times
- feel extremely tired or have trouble staying awake in the first six hours
- have head pain that becomes more severe
- have trouble recognizing your surroundings or people you know
- have slurred speech or trouble speaking
- also have a neck injury
- feel dizzy, clumsy, or as if you can’t move normally
- have seizures or lose consciousness for more than 30 seconds at any point
- are confused, disoriented, or have mood changes
If a child with a head injury has any of the above symptoms, cries continuously, or refuses to eat or breastfeed when they normally would after any kind of head injury, seek immediate medical care.