Symptoms, Recovery and What to Expect
A concussion, a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI), can happen to anyone. Over the span of six years (2007-2013), traumatic brain injury-related emergency department visits and hospitalization rates increased by 47 percent in the United States.
Concussions can be caused by a blow to the head or body, a fall, or another incident that jars or shakes the brain inside the skull. While most people fully recover, it is important to look for serious signs and allow yourself time to properly heal.
What Is a Concussion?
Your brain is surrounded by spinal fluid inside your skull. They can be the result of a direct bump or blow to the head as well as a hit to the body that shakes the head suddenly. Rapid movement bounces the brain around in the skull, stretching and damaging brain cells and creating chemical changes in the brain. This motion can impact your brain’s ability to send signals, which explains the symptoms of a concussion.
Main Causes of Concussions
Concussions have become synonymous with sports, especially with the recent awareness within the NFL increasing. However, you don’t need to be drafted to get a concussion.
In fact, the leading causes of concussions include:
- Car crashes
- Being struck by an object
- Playing sports
What Are the Symptoms of a Concussion?
Concussions range from mild to severe. Severe concussions may be obvious, but mild 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
- Ringing in the ears
- Slurred speech
- Delayed response
Some concussions may cause serious medical complications. Therefore, it’s important to look out for certain symptoms to determine when to seek professional help. If you have any of the following signs, it’s important to visit your local emergency department:
- Loss of consciousness
- Amnesia or memory loss
- Worsening headache
- Repeated vomiting
Once at the hospital, your physician may conduct a series of tests to determine the severity of your injury. Tests can include neurocognitive tests to assess your learning and memory skills.
How Do I Know if My Child Has Had a Concussion?
Symptoms in toddlers and small children can be more difficult to recognize. Symptoms can include:
- Excessive crying
- 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’re acting normally. Chances are, if they’re 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 Can I Expect After a Concussion?
Some people may experience concussive symptoms, typically lasting 10 to 14 days. These symptoms can include headaches, sensitivity to light, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, ringing in the ears and irritability. However, for more serious concussions, symptoms can last as long as a year. Specialists can work with you to alleviate and monitor these symptoms.
The Road to Recovery
Every concussion is different, including recovery time. Factors that may influence how quickly you recover include severity of your injury, your health before the concussion, age, and how you take care of yourself after the injury. One word applies to all: rest. Rest is extremely important no matter how severe your injury.
“After a couple days of rest, we suggest advancing activity under monitored protocols. The other important thing is taking a multi-specialized approach. Every concussion is unique because of the spectrum of symptoms can vary. Therefore, it’s important to have a variety of specialists who have the resources available to help you,” says Brian Babka, MD, FACSM, a board certified sports medicine physician with the Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group Orthopaedics and Sports Concussion Clinic.
If you are in the process of recovering, here are some tips:
- Sleep is your No. 1 priority. Make sure you are allowing your brain enough time to heal itself.
- Avoid any activity that is physically or mentally demanding.
- Avoid any activity that can cause another concussion.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Be honest with your physician about your symptoms. Your physician is there to help you return to your normal routine at a pace that is safe and healthy.
Work with your provider on the best treatment plan for your recovery. For athletes, specialized care can get you back on the field safely at Northwestern Medicine’s Sports Concussion Clinic.
How Can I Support Someone With a Concussion?
Concussions can be difficult to detect because the injury is not always noticeable. If someone you know has experienced a concussion, encourage them to rest and take it easy. Understand that they may not be able to partake in “normal” activities, such as watching television, texting or emailing. Instead, encourage them to rest and recover to avoid any serious and lingering complications.
“Education is important. When you become informed, you can better provide for that patient by creating an environment that promotes recovery and protection,” says Babka.
If your child has had a concussion, make sure they also receive plenty of rest. Avoid any high-risk activities, such as resuming sports, until they have fully recovered. Work with your provider to determine how soon to return to school and other activities. Work with teachers, siblings and coaches to help them understand the gravity of the injury and set expectations.
Where Can I Get Additional Help?
If symptoms persist, call your provider. Return to the emergency room if you experience vomiting, worsening headache, seizures or any lingering symptoms that may be concerning. You can also visit one of our concussion specialists for personalized care on your journey to recovery.
Brian M. Babka, MD, FACSM, Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group, Sports Medicine