A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) that can occur after an impact to your head. Concussions can also happen during a whiplash-type injury that causes your head and brain to shake quickly back and forth.
Not every bump to the head will cause a TBI. But concussions can cause noticeable symptoms that shouldn’t be ignored. These include headaches, an altered mental state, and even loss of consciousness.
Concussions are usually not life threatening, but they can cause serious symptoms that require medical attention. Treatment may include rest, taking a break from specific activities, and pain medication.
Head injuries can affect anyone, whether caused by a fall at home or in a car accident. If you participate in impact sports such as football or boxing, you have an increased risk of getting a concussion.
We’ll go over key signs and symptoms of a concussion, how this varies by age, what treatment looks like, and more.
Symptoms of a concussion vary depending on both the severity of the injury and the person injured. It’s not true that a loss of consciousness always occurs with a concussion. Some people do experience a loss of consciousness, but others don’t.
Concussions can be painful, but most are not life threatening. You should still always consult a doctor after a possible head injury, as medical treatment may be necessary.
Here’s a breakdown of different
|Physical symptoms (somatic)||You might experience sensitivity to light, dizziness, fatigue, headache, nausea and vomiting, trouble seeing|
|Emotional||Feeling particularly anxious, irritable, moody, or sad|
|Thinking and remembering (cognitive)||Having difficulty paying attention, problems with short- or long-term memory, feeling groggy|
|Sleep||Irregular sleeping patterns (too much or too little), trouble falling asleep|
Symptoms of a concussion in yourself
It’s important to know how to recognize a concussion in yourself, as well as in others.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
- nausea or vomiting
- confusion or feeling disoriented
- drowsiness or feeling sluggish
- double vision or blurred vision
- sensitivity to light or noise
- balance problems
Symptoms of concussion in a loved one
Sometimes other people are able to observe signs of a concussion more clearly than the concussed person.
Signs of a concussion observed by others include:
- memory problems
- a dazed look
- sudden mood, behavior, or personality changes
- losing consciousness
- slow reflexes and responses
These symptoms may begin immediately, or they can be delayed for hours or days following the injury. It’s important to consistently check on someone if they may have a concussion to monitor any symptom changes.
Recovery symptoms for concussion
During the recovery period after a concussion, you may still experience uncomfortable symptoms.
- sensitivity to light or noise
- difficulty concentrating
- mild headaches
If you believe you or another person has experienced a head injury, seek medical assistance.
Concussion symptoms in babies
Concussion symptoms can vary when it comes to babies. These may not be as noticeable at first. Babies don’t exhibit slurred speech, walking difficulties, and other hallmark symptoms that can be seen in concussed children and adults.
Some common signs of a concussion in babies include:
- a visible bump or bruise on the baby’s head
- crying when you move the baby’s head or neck
- dilated pupils
In rare cases, concussions can cause permanent brain damage in infants. While most babies recover from concussions, it’s important to have them checked out by a doctor. Seek immediate medical help if your baby is unconscious.
Concussion symptoms in children
As children get older, they may show clearer behavioral signs of concussion, and be able to express their symptoms themselves.
- trouble sleeping
- vision problems (including eye pain, double vision)
Other signs to look for in younger children include:
- excessive crying
- staring into space
- behavioral changes
- trouble concentrating
Because children’s brains are still developing, they are uniquely at risk of TBI, especially if they play sports.
It’s important that children are promptly evaluated after a potential TBI, and provided necessary accommodations at school during their recovery. Kids recovering from a concussion may need time away from sports teams and classes. They may also require extra breaks during the day or assignment extensions.
See a doctor if you suspect that you or someone else has a concussion. While most concussions resolve on their own, it’s important to evaluate the severity of the injury.
Concussions may be accompanied by injuries to the spine. If you think a person has a neck or back injury, avoid moving them and call an ambulance for help. If you absolutely must move the person, do so very carefully. You should try to keep the person’s neck and back as stationary as possible. This will avoid causing further damage to the spine.
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), seek immediate medical assistance if someone with a concussion has:
- slurred speech
- trouble waking up, or you can’t wake them
- consistent vomiting
- a history of multiple concussions
In general, someone with a concussion should absolutely see a doctor if their symptoms aren’t getting better after a few days, or are getting worse.
Concussions are caused by some type of impact injury to your head.
Our brains float in a jelly-like fluid inside our skulls. This fluid is called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Head injuries can cause our brain and its surrounding membrane (meninges) to hit the side of our skull. This kind of impact can damage the brain’s tissues, and even cause our CSF to leak.
Causes of a concussion include:
- falling down
- getting hit in the head (especially when playing sports)
- being in a car accident
- being injured in a blast or explosion
In severe head injuries, part of our skull can fracture. Skull fractures can cause jagged edges of bone to poke at our brain and cause harm.
Some traumatic brain injuries involve more than an impact of the brain against our own skull. TBI and concussion can also occur if a foreign object enters your skull, such as a bullet or shrapnel.
If a doctor or emergency room visit is necessary, your doctor will ask how the injury happened and what symptoms you’re experiencing. You may also be asked to fill out a chart or questionnaire about your symptoms, and rate their severity.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam, which may include a balance and vision test. Doctors use vision tests to look for changes in pupil size, eye movements, and light sensitivities, which concussions can cause.
In the case of serious impact or symptoms, your doctor may request an MRI scan or a CT scan of your brain to check for damage.
If you experienced seizures following a concussion, your doctor may also perform an electroencephalogram, which monitors brain waves.
Concussions in athletes
Concussions are a common complication of contact sports. Players used to be allowed to return to play with limited intervention after a head injury, but now standardized assessment tools are used to watch carefully for signs of injury to help prevent secondary injuries from another impact.
It’s important to always report a possible concussion to your coach, even if you’re worried about being put on the bench. Head injuries can become very serious if not treated promptly, and lead to lifelong health complications.
Treatment for a concussion depends on the severity of your symptoms. Most concussions can be healed at home or with conservative medical approaches.
Treatment can include:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers.
- Drinking plenty of water. Concussions can cause nausea and vomiting, which lead to dehydration.
- Getting enough rest.
- Taking a break from sports and other strenuous activities.
- Not driving a vehicle right away. This includes cars and bikes, or anything that requires steering. Your balance, focus, and coordination may be impaired following a concussion.
- Avoiding alcohol while recovering. Alcohol can slow recovery and have adverse interactions with certain medications. Talk to your doctor about whether or not drinking is okay, and when.
- Brain rest. Minimize use of electronics (including TV, cell phone, computer) to allow your brain time to heal. Bright lights and noises can worsen concussion and recovery symptoms.
You might be evaluated for surgery or other medical procedures if you have:
- bleeding in the brain
- swelling of the brain
- other serious injury to the brain
I’ve always heard that you should keep someone awake for 24 hours if they’ve suffered a significant head injury, but is that true? Why is it so important?Anonymous
The traditional teaching is that it is important to awaken someone periodically after a traumatic brain injury (e.g., if they have suffered loss of consciousness or a severe concussion) in order to be certain that they are not deteriorating. Being unable to arouse someone would be indicative of an extreme situation. But the act of sleeping itself would not be harmful.
In the hospital, if someone has suffered a sufficiently bad injury, it is likely that they would have had a CT scan or MRI to directly identify an area of bleeding, fractured skull, or other injury. In the wilderness, away from testing, it is reasonable to awaken someone every few hours to be certain that they are not getting worse. There is no absolute interval for or duration of such evaluation, but remember that at some point, people need to sleep because they are tired, and rest is important for recovery.Paul Auerbach, MD, MS, FACEP, FAWMAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
Anyone who has had a concussion shouldn’t return to sports or strenuous activities without a doctor’s permission. Getting a second concussion before the first concussion is healed can cause a condition known as second impact syndrome, which can increase the chances of severe brain swelling and may be fatal.
Remember, it’s important to take time to rest after any concussion. This allows your brain to heal. Even once your doctor has granted permission to return to sports or exercise, that return should be gradual.
Other long-term complications include:
- Post-concussion syndrome. This causes you to experience concussion symptoms for weeks (or even months) instead of just a few days. If concussion symptoms
last longer than 3 months, this is called persistent postconcussive syndrome. It is more likely to occur in those with multiple TBIs, or when athletes return to play too soon in recovery.
- Post-traumatic headaches. These can last for a few months.
- Post-traumatic vertigo. This condition causes dizziness, and can also occur for months after the injury.
- Brain injury or damage. People with multiple TBIs are more likely to experience long-term adverse effects in the brain.
You can reduce your risk of getting a concussion taking some basic safety precautions.
- wearing a properly fitted helmet
- using athletic safety gear
- following safety guidelines in sports, and when operating vehicles or equipment
- taking plenty of time to recover from injuries
Concussions are a mild form of traumatic brain injury (TBI), and most concussed people recover fully with no long-term complications.
Concussions often heal on their own with rest. It may be necessary to take a break from sports, school, or work while recovering, or receive accommodations. Some people take over-the-counter pain medications to help with symptoms.
It’s important that all head injuries are evaluated by a doctor. In case of serious or prolonged symptoms, further examination and imaging may be needed.
Some concussion symptoms may take weeks to months to disappear. In rare instances, people experience emotional, mental, or physical changes that are more lasting. Repeat concussions can increase the chances of permanent brain damage.