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All About Concussions

Symptoms, Recovery and What to Expect

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury resulting from a direct or indirect blow to the head causing rapid moving and stretching of the brain. The injury can cause brain cells not to work properly, which impacts your brain's ability to send signals.

Causes of a Concussion

Concussions have become synonymous with sports, but they are not limited to sports. A concussion can be caused by a blow to the head or body, a fall, or any incident that jars or shakes the brain inside the skull.

The leading causes of concussions include:

  • Falls
  • Car crashes
  • Being struck by an object
  • Assaults
  • Playing sports

Symptoms of a Concussion

Concussion symptoms range from mild to severe. More pronounced concussion signs and symptoms may be obvious, but concussions can present themselves in subtle ways, making them harder to detect.
Signs and symptoms of a concussion can include:

  • Headache or pressure in your head
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Light sensitivity
  • Delayed response or fogginess
  • Fatigue

While most people fully recover, it is important to look for signs of more serious damage and allow yourself time to properly heal, explains Brian Babka, MD, FACSM, a board-certified sports medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group Orthopaedics and the Northwestern Medicine Sports Concussion Clinic.

If you have any of the following signs, visit your local emergency department:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Amnesia or memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Worsening headache
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Seizure

Your physician will conduct a physical and neurological exam, and may conduct a series of tests to determine the severity of your injury. These tests can include imaging as well as neurocognitive tests to assess your balance, vision, concentration and memory skills.

Signs of Concussion in Children

Symptoms in toddlers and small children can be more difficult to recognize. Symptoms can include:

  • Excessive crying
  • Irritability
  • Change in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Bump or bruise on the head
  • Lack of interest in their toys

Watch your child closely to see if they are acting normally. Chances are, if they are acting normally, they are OK. However, it is always best to check with your physician if you notice any symptoms. Seek immediate attention if your child lost consciousness during the incident, begins vomiting or shows signs of worsening symptoms.

What to Expect After a Concussion

Every concussion is different, including recovery time. Symptoms typically last one to two weeks, but can persist longer. Specialists can work with you to alleviate and monitor these symptoms.

Factors that may influence how quickly you recover include severity of your injury and symptoms, your health before the concussion, history of migraines, neck issues or injuries, your age, and how you take care of yourself after the injury.

Dr. Babka says patients typically should rest a couple of days and then slowly increase activity with guidance from their physician. "The other important thing is taking a multi-specialized approach," he adds. "Every concussion is unique because the spectrum of symptoms can vary. Therefore, it's important to have a variety of specialists who have the resources available to help you."

If you are in the process of recovering, here are some tips:

  • Good sleep hygiene.
  • Avoid any activity that can cause another concussion.
  • Check in with your physician during recovery. Your physician is there to help you return to your normal routine at a pace that is safe and healthy.

If symptoms persist, call your physician or advanced practice provider. Return to the emergency department if you experience vomiting, worsening headache or seizures.

How to Support Someone With a Concussion

Concussions can be difficult to detect because the injury and initial symptoms are not always noticeable. If someone you know has experienced a concussion, encourage them to rest. Understand that they may not be able to fully participate in "normal" activities, such as driving, work, school, exercise or sports. Instead, encourage daily activity as much as possible with modified rest and active recovery to avoid any serious or lingering complications.

 "Education, for both clinicians and patients, is important," notes Dr. Babka. "When you become informed, you can better provide for that patient by creating an environment that promotes active recovery."

If your child has had a concussion, avoid any high-risk activities, such as resuming sports, until they have fully recovered. Work with your child's physician or advanced practice provider to determine how soon your child can return to school and other activities. Talk to teachers, siblings and coaches to help them understand the seriousness of the injury. Then work together to set expectations and establish a return-to-learn plan and a return-to-play/sport plan.