A concussion is an injury that causes the brain to move suddenly and quickly inside your head. Symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on the severity of the injury.
Concussions usually follow trauma to the head, but they can occur if a blow to the body is hard enough to cause the head to move in a violent manner. A concussion is a serious injury because it affects the health and function of brain cells.
Concussions are sometimes graded on the severity of their symptoms:
- grade 0: headache and difficulty concentrating
- grade 1: headache, difficulty concentrating, and a dazed feeling for less than a minute
- grade 2: grade 1 symptoms, with a longer period of feeling dazed, possibly accompanied by dizziness, confusion, amnesia, ringing in the ears, and irritability
- grade 3: loss of consciousness for less than a minute
- grade 4: loss of consciousness for longer than a minute
Returning to very limited activities following a grade 0 or 1 concussion may be allowable within a day or two. A grade 2 headache may require a few days of rest. A grade 3 or 4 concussion will mean at least a few weeks of recovery time. Regardless of the severity of your concussion, you should be symptom-free before returning to normal activity, and your condition should be carefully monitored by your doctor.
In 2013, the American Academy of Neurology updated its guidelines for evaluating and managing sports concussions. The organization suggested moving away from the traditional grading system and instead evaluating each concussion case individually. By doing so, doctors or trainers won’t feel outside influence when deciding when to give athletes and others the green light for returning to strenuous activity.
Treating a concussion quickly and effectively is critically important. Misdiagnosing the problem or allowing someone with a concussion to put themselves in harm’s way too soon can lead to further injury and long-term complications. Proper post-concussion care can help you heal more quickly.
If you’ve experienced a concussion:
- See a doctor immediately to have your injury and symptoms evaluated. Even if they don’t seem serious, symptoms following any type of head injury should be treated as an emergency.
- Rest during the day and try to get a good night’s sleep. It’s the key to helping the brain heal.
- Stay inside in an area without a lot of bright light.
- Apply ice packs for headaches.
- Keep family or friends around you 24 hours a day for the first two days at least.
- Take only the medications your doctor has approved. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) for headache pain may be OK, but aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil) may cause bleeding problems in the brain.
- Focus on doing one thing at a time. Multitasking, like watching television while doing homework or cooking, can make you feel more distracted and lightheaded.
- Eat a light but healthy diet, especially if you are feeling nauseous.
- See your doctor for all follow-up appointments. If you are experiencing new symptoms during your recovery, see a doctor immediately.
Likewise, there are several things you should avoid doing in the days and weeks immediately after a concussion:
- Avoid returning to work or school too quickly. Refrain from doing most of your normal activities until your symptoms subside.
- Avoid activities, such as contact sports, that put you at higher risk for another head injury.
- Don’t ignore symptoms or lie about them to a trainer or doctor.
- Avoid alcohol, as it might slow your recovery.
- Don’t spend much time in front of a computer screen or television. Playing video games or even watching television that features bright lights, noise, and rapidly changing images may cause headaches and other symptoms.
- Avoid airplane travel if possible. Some people have complained of worsened concussion symptoms after a plane flight.
If you’ve taken a blow to the head or body that causes a headache, or numbness or weakness in your limbs, see a doctor immediately. Call 911 or have someone close to you transport you to an emergency room. This is especially true if your headache continues to get worse or you are unsteady on your feet. Concussion symptoms that include repeated vomiting should also be treated as an emergency.
Other danger signs that should trigger a trip to the emergency room include:
- extreme drowsiness or the inability to be fully awakened
- inability to recognize familiar people or places
- having one pupil that is larger than the other
- fever of 100.5°F or higher
- seizures or convulsions
- slurred speech
- abnormal behavior, such as extreme confusion or irritability
A concussion is a very individualized injury with no clear-cut way of determining when someone is fully recovered. Symptoms may show up immediately. Others may not appear for several days or even longer. You can have a mild concussion that doesn’t require treatment or a lot of downtime, or you may have a concussion that causes headaches or other symptoms for months.
On average, expect to take at least two to four weeks off from strenuous activities, including sports, while you recover. Most importantly, follow your doctor’s advice and be sure to share all your symptoms with your healthcare providers, even if it means more rest and less activity. You have only one brain, so making sure it recovers properly from a concussion is one of the smartest things you can do.