There’s a good chance that you or someone you love could sustain a concussion, whether in a big game or an unexpected accident. Millions of Americans will sustain concussions this year – like every year – from sports injuries, falls (the leading cause of all brain injuries), motor vehicle accidents, and assaults. Make sure you know how to recognize a concussion, the truth behind the many head injury myths, and when to get help.
About half of all concussions go undiagnosed – and therefore, untreated. One concussion puts you at risk for a second, especially if you’re not getting the rest you need for your brain to heal, and sustaining multiple concussions could lead to cumulative effects on your health. That’s why it’s so important to recognize a concussion when it occurs.
Symptoms that could indicate concussions are similar to brain injury symptoms in general and include:
- Feeling dazed, “in a fog,” or “not yourself”
- Headache or pressure in the head
- Neck pain
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Ringing in your ears
- Brief, temporary loss of consciousness (ranging from just seconds to a few minutes)
- Amnesia surrounding the accident or injury
- Concentration or memory problems
- Personality or mood changes
- Sensory changes, like sensitivity to light and noise or disorders of smell and taste
- Delayed response to questions
- Problems walking or decreased coordination
- Physical weakness or numbness
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Slurred speech
For most concussion victims, symptoms last for a week to 10 days – but for some, they can linger for weeks. If you find that your symptoms are sticking around even longer, you might have post-concussive syndrome, which could continue for months.
There are a lot of misconceptions about brain injuries, and believing them could make you underestimate the severity of your injury. Don’t buy into these concussion myths:
1. A concussion isn’t a real brain injury. Concussions fall into the category of mild traumatic brain injuries, as do 75 percent of all TBIs. In fact, BrainLine identifies concussions as “the mildest form of brain injury” – but that doesn’t mean that the injuries aren’t significant or that they won’t have any long-term consequences.
A mild brain injury is a still a brain injury – it still causes serious damage to the organ that controls virtually every function of your body, from thinking to moving. “There is no such thing as a ‘minor concussion,” the American Association of Neurological Surgeons stated.
2. I didn’t hit my head (or didn’t hit it hard), so I don’t have a concussion.
It’s true that most victims sustain concussions from a blow to the head, but not all do. A concussion can also result from violent shaking.
Think of it this way: the brain is composed of soft tissue, but the skull that surrounds it is made of hard bone. A strong force, like a brutal impact or intense shaking, can cause the soft brain to collide with the inside of the skull. This leads to bruising, nerve injury, and blood vessel damage – all of which is invisible, since it’s going on inside your head. You may look fine after suffering a concussion, but the impact or jolt could still affect your brain, even if it didn’t seem to be that forceful.
3. I didn’t lose consciousness, so I must not have a concussion.Only an estimated 10 percent of concussion patients lose consciousness, which means that most people who suffer concussions don’t lose consciousness. That doesn’t make their injury any less serious.Also, a loss of consciousness can last for just a few seconds – so little time that you might not recognize that you actually lost consciousness, just that you feel confused.
4. I don’t play sports (or certain sports), so I’m not at risk for a concussion.Sports may be the most publicized risks for sustaining concussions, but they’re far from the only cause. Falls are particularly prone to causing concussions. Motor vehicle collisions also lead to concussions, as do assaults and accidents in which an object strikes a victim. If you ever ride in any kind of motor vehicle or walk in an area where you could fall – as pretty much every individual does at some point – then you could sustain a concussion.As for playing sports, you might be surprised to learn that boxing and football aren’t the only athletic activities likely to cause concussions. Soccer, basketball, cheerleading, and even cycling commonly lead to concussions – and even the best headgear on the market can only go so far toward protecting your head.
5. My test results came back normal, so I don’t have a concussion.
Concussions typically don’t cause any identifiable structural damage to the brain, according to BrainLine, which means that any medical imaging tests your doctor orders are likely to come back negative. The fact that your test results came back normal doesn’t rule out a mild TBI like a concussion – it just means that the injury isn’t something even more severe.
When to Seek Help
You should always see a doctor after any kind of head injury, but symptoms like the following mean that you or your injured loved one needs medical attention right away:
- Repeated vomiting
- Weakness, numbness, loss of coordination, or problems walking
- Sleeping changes
- Slurred speech
- Inability to recognize familiar people and places
What to Expect After a Concussion
Doctors sometimes diagnose different grades of concussions, as outlined by the Brain Injury Association of America:
- Grade 1: Patient never loses consciousness and their symptoms – including confusion, feeling dazed, and having difficulty following directions – last just 15 minutes or less.
- Grade 2: Patient never loses consciousness, but develops amnesia (memory problems) around the event that caused the injury. These symptoms continue for longer than 15 minutes.
- Grade 3: Patient loses consciousness for seconds or minutes and displays physical, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms.
This is just one of the most widely used guidelines for grading concussions. Your doctor may use a different scale or may not grade your concussion at all. Some experts argue that there’s not enough data to support grading concussions in this way and that all of the 19 systems currently in existence are too arbitrary to help.
Regardless of what grade concussion you think you may have, it’s important to see a doctor to determine the extent of the damage and make sure that your injury isn’t something even more serious than a concussion. You may need to undergo medical imaging scans, reflex tests, and questions designed to detect cognitive impairments like memory or concentration problems. Very serious concussions may require hospitalization, while less serious injuries can often be treated with rest, appropriate (doctor-prescribed) medications, and outpatient follow-up care.
It’s a frightening experience when you, your child, or another loved one sustains a concussion. Knowing what symptoms to watch for and what to do next can make this difficult, dangerous experience less traumatizing and make sure you get the help you need when you need it.