11 signs and symptoms of concussion and where to seek help

Neuropsychologist Kate Higgins, PsyD, ABPP-CN and athletic trainer Rusty McKune, ATC, regularly treat concussions. Here they share what to watch out for and when to get help.

“A concussion is the same thing as a mild TBI, which stands for traumatic brain injury,” says Dr. Higgins. Head injuries vary in severity. “In severe TBI, we would absolutely expect to see long-term cognitive changes. But for mild TBI or concussion, most people recover well if they receive good post-concussion care.”

11 concussion symptoms to watch out for

“The onset of concussion symptoms can be immediate or delayed. Each person will experience the onset, duration and severity differently,” says McKune.

What the person feels:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sensitivity to light/sound
  • Not feeling well or in a fog
  • Memory loss just as the impact occurred

Signs of a concussion that others may observe include:

  • Loss of equilibrium
  • Loss of coordination
  • Looking dazed or dazed
  • Behavioral and mood changes

“You can also have a concussion from whiplash,” says Dr. Higgins. “Neck pain can be a source of headaches.”

Where to go when a concussion is serious

Concussions are best managed by those trained in concussion management. Most do not require a trip to the emergency room. However, if any of the following red flags are seen, felt or reported, go to the emergency room as it could be a sign of a more serious injury.

Red flags indicating a more serious injury:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Headaches that persist or worsen
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Speech disorders
  • Numbness or weakness in the arms/legs
  • Unusual behavior
  • Inability to recognize people or places
  • Inability to be awakened

Will concussions show up on MRI or CT? Nope

“A brain with a concussion almost always looks perfectly fine on MRIs and CT scans – the most common types of brain imaging,” says Dr. Higgins.

How a concussion affects the brain

“Concussions alter the communication efficiency of the brain,” says Dr. Higgins. “A concussion causes very small changes, at the level of neurons, that affect how the brain communicates.”

It’s almost like building a road in your brain. You can still get from point A to point B, but it will take longer and require a little more effort.

Prevent worsening of concussion symptoms

Sustaining a second concussion tends to have more severe symptoms and takes longer to heal.

“We don’t want you banging your head again while you’re recovering,” says Dr. Higgins. “Ride on a stationary bike or walk on a treadmill for light exercise. A little physical activity will help you heal.”

“It’s important to avoid putting yourself in positions that would predispose you to sustain another concussion before the first one heals,” says McKune. “Also, report your symptoms to your provider. This includes symptom changes and increases in symptoms you are already experiencing.”

Will a concussion heal on its own? Yes

“The brain is really good at healing itself after a concussion,” says Dr. Higgins. “Research gives us different answers, but a rough estimate is that it takes between two and four weeks to recover. Children take a little longer to heal from a concussion.”

It is important to get back to normal life as soon as possible. “You may need to reduce the amount of cognitive work at school or work. Getting back to your routine gives you purpose and adds good structure to your day,” says Dr. Higgins.

“Sleep really helps the brain heal. If you experience any disturbances in your sleep, let your doctor know,” says Dr. Higgins. “Also report if you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression.”

“People experience concussion and recover from concussion in different ways. There’s no magic recipe for what can be done to help with recovery,” McKune says. “However, if they’re protecting themselves, communicating what they’re going through, and following their healthcare provider’s recommendations, they’re doing things that can help the recovery process.”

How to help your brain heal:

  1. Light exercise, without putting yourself at risk of another blow to the head
  2. Get enough sleep, which is essential to the healing process
  3. Occupational therapy and physiotherapy to retrain brain systems

About Mildred B.

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