Heads Up! Is it a Concussion or Something Worse?

It’s fall sports season – that time of year full of fantasy leagues, rabid fans and tons of head injuries. Many of those will be concussions, some will be something worse. The CDC estimates that as many as $3.8 million Americans get a concussion during any given year. About 30% of us will experience one during our lifetime.

In truth, concussions can occur to anyone at any time of year, in any situation. All you need is a hard hit to the head or something that causes your brain to “rattle.” During the impact, the brain crashes back and forth within the skull resulting in bruising of brain tissue.

A concussion is no joke, but it is considered a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). A person with a mild TBI or concussion may experience short-term symptoms and feel better within a couple of weeks or months.

A person with a moderate or severe TBI may have long-term or life-long effects from the injury, including bleeding, prolonged swelling in the brain or even an extended period of unconsciousness (coma) or amnesia. The effects of a moderate or severe TBI are different for each person and may change during recovery. Most people will have one or more health problem after a moderate to severe brain injury that can include physical disability and long-term cognitive impairment.

Medical providers label concussions as mild because they are usually not life-threatening. Even so, the effects of a concussion can be serious. What is crucial to recognize is that even a “mild” concussion can have lasting effects. In order to minimize the long-term effects of a concussion, it is important to understand the signs and symptoms. Knowing when you need a concussion test will help make sure that a more severe traumatic brain injury will never go untreated.

How to Tell If It’s a Concussion?

There are both immediate and delayed symptoms of a concussion. Most often, symptoms develop within a few minutes or hours of a head injury, but sometimes, symptoms may not be obvious for a few days. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a concussion is crucial for early diagnosis and proper treatment.

Immediate Symptoms (or within a couple of hours of injury):

• A persistent or worsening headache, especially if it’s not typical for you.
• Feeling dizzy, unsteady or having difficulty maintaining your balance.
• Mental fog, disorientation or trouble concentrating or remembering things.
• Feeling queasy, nauseous or actually vomiting.
• Vision problems, such as seeing double or experiencing blurred vision.
• Feeling more sensitive to bright lights or loud sounds than usual.
Delayed Symptoms (may develop several hours to days after the injury):
• Changes in your sleep patterns, including sleeping more or less than usual or having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
• Unexplained mood swings, irritability, sadness or increased emotional sensitivity.
• Feeling unusually tired or lacking energy.
• Continued problems with focus, memory or concentration.
• Tinnitus or a ringing sensation in the ears.
• Altered or distorted perceptions of taste or smell.

If you suspect you or someone else has a concussion, seek care from a healthcare provider who can assess the severity of the injury, perform neurologic tests and provide guidance on treatment and recovery.

Myths and Misconceptions About Concussions

Misconceptions about concussions can lead to misunderstandings and inappropriate management of these injuries. Here are some common concussion myths:

Myth: You shouldn’t go to sleep if you have a concussion.

Fact: Previously, medical experts would advise people to stay awake if they had a concussion. This advice was based on the theory that sleeping with a concussion could cause a person to fall into a coma or even die, as well as fear that if a person goes to sleep following a head injury, they and those around them would miss worsening symptoms. Medical experts now agree that it is safe for a person to sleep if they have a concussion. However, the injured person should be roused every few hours to monitor symptoms.

Myth: If you didn’t lose consciousness, you don’t have a concussion.

Fact: Loss of consciousness is not a requirement for a concussion. Many concussions occur without a person ever losing consciousness. Concussions can happen from a sudden jolt, with symptoms only developing over time.

Myth: Wearing a helmet will prevent a concussion.

Fact: While helmets are crucial for preventing more severe head injuries, they cannot prevent concussions – just ask a professional football player who’s had several. Helmets are designed to reduce the risk of skull fractures and brain bleeds but may not prevent the brain from moving inside the skull during a sudden impact, which can cause a concussion.

Myth: Once symptoms resolve you are fully recovered.

Fact: Just because symptoms have resolved doesn’t mean the brain has fully healed. It’s essential to follow a healthcare provider’s guidance and gradually return to physical and cognitive activities. Pushing too hard too soon can lead to symptom recurrence or delayed recovery. Suffering a second concussion before the brain has fully healed from the first can lead to a dangerous condition known as “second impact syndrome,” which can have severe consequences, including brain swelling and post-concussion syndrome.

The Bottom Line

Any significant impact to the head or extreme jolt to the body can cause a concussion, which has become increasingly common. While concussions are not usually life threatening, symptoms can worsen over time and can often be a signal that the brain injury may be more severe than it originally seemed.

It is critical to monitor symptoms after a head trauma and seek medical attention if you suspect anything is off.

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