A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that millions of Americans sustain every year. Sports and recreational activities alone cause between 1.6 to 3.8 million concussions in the U.S. yearly. While it’s usually not life-threatening, a concussion is a serious injury.
Read our comprehensive guide to learn what to look for in yourself and others, and what actions to take in the event of an accident or injury that affects the head.
Your brain is made up of soft tissues protected by cerebrospinal fluid in the skull. When you hit your head, or take a blow to the head or body that causes violent movement of your head and neck, the brain jolts, moves or twists in your skull. The moving and twisting damages the soft tissues and may cause chemical changes, nerve injury, bruising and cell damage. In severe cases, a head injury can also cause bleeding and swelling in the brain.
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI) because it impairs normal brain function. The effects are usually short-term and can affect your normal cognitive and neurological functioning.
Concussions occur from a blow or bump to the head, or from a forceful hit to the body that causes the head to move back and forth rapidly. You may sustain a head injury from the following:
You should always be seen and examined by a doctor if you suffer an accident where you hit your head. Some complications of a brain injury — which we’ll discuss later in this article — are life-threatening, and receiving proper medical care and monitoring can prevent further damage.
Typically, signs or symptoms of a concussion appear directly following an injury or accident, but some symptoms may take several hours or days to fully manifest.
These are signs you may observe as a witness to someone who sustains a concussion:
These are symptoms you may develop if you sustain a concussion yourself:
These are signs or symptoms that indicate a severe injury and require immediate medical care in the ER:
Seek medical care anytime you suffer an accident or injury where you hit your head. Sometimes, you may not show symptoms of a brain injury right away, but your doctor will be able to examine you for signs or symptoms of serious medical problems. He or she will probably want to take imaging tests like a MRI or CT scan. A CT scan will reveal any bleeding, swelling or fractures in the skull.
Additionally, your doctor will ask you about your accident, symptoms you have and if you have a history of concussions. He or she will perform cognitive and neurological tests to determine the severity of your injury. If you have a severe concussion, you may need to be observed in a hospital overnight.
The first stage of treatment is mental and physical rest. Following the injury, don’t participate in physical activities or mental tasks that are too engaging. Even stimulation from watching TV or reading a book may cause symptoms to worsen in the first few days. During this time, have a caregiver or loved one monitor you frequently for new or worsening symptoms.
You can start increasing your activity level slowly as symptoms begin to resolve. Once you feel up to it, light exercise can aid your recovery. Resume your normal activities as you feel able to over the next few weeks. You may need some time to fully recover: take breaks, work half days if your job allows it and avoid strenuous physical activities until you feel ready. If you play sports, don’t resume playing until your symptoms are completely resolved.
Most people recover fully within a few weeks. It’s normal to experience symptoms during the healing process — you may have headaches, vertigo, mood and personality changes, concentration issues, sleep disturbances or sensitivity to light and sound for several days or weeks following your initial injury.
See your doctor for a follow-up if your symptoms aren’t getting better after a few weeks, or if you experience new or worsening symptoms.
In some cases, people have serious complications or suffer long-term effects from a concussion. These may include:
1.) Swelling or bleeding in the brain. Brain bleeding and inflammation can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.
2.) Second impact syndrome. If you sustain a second concussion before recovering fully from the first, you have a much higher risk of developing dangerous, rapid brain swelling. Second impact syndrome is often fatal.
3.) Severe brain injury. Sustaining multiple concussions can cause permanent brain injury. You may suffer from lifelong cognitive and neurological side effects.
4.) Post-concussion syndrome (PCS). This condition occurs when concussion symptoms — including headaches, memory and concentration issues, vertigo and others — last for several months of even years following the initial injury. Research indicates that anywhere between 5-30% of people who sustain a concussion suffer from PCS.
There are ways you can help prevent future concussions. Always wear helmets and protective gear when you play sports and always wear a seatbelt when you’re driving or riding in a car. Make your home as safe as possible, especially if you have stairs. Falling in the home is one of the most common causes of head injuries.
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