A concussion, also known as a mild traumatic brain injury, is the result of a direct or indirect trauma to the head. A concussion usually results in loss of normal brain function for anywhere from a day to months depending on the severity of the trauma.

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Understanding Concussions

What is a concussion?

A blow or jolt to the head can cause a concussion or a mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI). An injury to another part of the body that transmits force to the head can also result in concussion. The injury keeps the brain from working normally. Symptoms of a concussion may last less than a day or may linger for months, or longer.

Millions of mild traumatic brain injuries occur in the U.S. each year, but most don't require a visit to the hospital.

What are the causes of a concussion?

Many concussions that require emergency treatment are because of falls, motor vehicle accidents, assaults, and sports injuries. Children, young adults, active military personnel, and older adults are at an especially high risk for concussions, and it may take them longer to recover after a concussion. People who have had concussions before are more likely to have them again.

What are the symptoms of a concussion?

These are symptoms of a possible concussion:

  • Headache.

  • Vomiting or nausea.

  • Trouble thinking normally.

  • Memory problems.

  • Trouble walking.

  • Dizziness.

  • Vision problems.

  • Fatigue.

  • Mood changes.

  • Changes in sleep patterns.

These symptoms may occur right away or may worsen over minutes or hours after an injury. Symptoms may be stable or improve with various lengths of time.

How is a concussion diagnosed?

To diagnose a concussion, your healthcare provider will probably ask you a variety of questions. Be sure to say if you lost consciousness and report any other symptoms. The healthcare provider will also want to know how the injury occurred and where you hit your head.

You may also be asked questions to test your memory and asked to do certain tasks to show how well your brain is working. Your healthcare provider may also ask your friends or family questions about your symptoms and the injury.

You may also need imaging tests of your brain, such as a CT scan or MRI.

How is a concussion treated?

An important part of treatment for a concussion is getting plenty of rest, both sleep at night and naps or rest breaks during the day if needed. Your healthcare provider will probably tell you to not do certain physical activities and sports while you recover. He or she may suggest medicine to take if you have a headache. It is important to prevent more head trauma, especially as you recover.

If your symptoms don't go away in a few days or if they get worse, you may need to see a healthcare provider who specializes in concussions. You may need medicines, physical therapy, or other treatments for residual symptoms, such as headache, dizziness, or balance problems.

What can I do to prevent a concussion?

You can take a number of steps to help reduce your risk for a concussion or prevent it in your children:

  • Wear a seat belt every time you're in a motor vehicle.

  • Make sure your children use the proper safety seat, booster seat or seat belt.

  • Never drive under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol or ride with a driver who is under the influence. 

  • Wear a helmet for activities such as riding a bike or motorcycle, playing contact sports, skiing, horseback riding and snowboarding.

  • Reduce your risk for falls by eliminating clutter in your home, removing slippery area rugs, and installing grab bars in the bathroom if needed, especially for older adults.

  • Never work on a ladder if you feel dizzy or lightheaded. Alcohol can make you dizzy. Some medicines also can make you dizzy or affect your balance.

  • Have your vision checked at least once a year. Poor vision can increase your risk for falls and other types of accidents.

Managing a concussion

After a concussion, your healthcare provider may decide to monitor you in the emergency room. When you’re released, the provider may want someone to stay with you at home for a day or two to keep track of your condition. 

Since the effects of a concussion go away over time, there isn’t a lot you need to do. Be assured that this problem is temporary. You’ll likely have a full recovery. In the meantime, talk with your healthcare provider about ways to relieve any symptoms that are bothering you. These tips may help:

  • Don't return to sports or any activity that could cause you to hit your head until all symptoms are gone and you have been cleared by your doctor. A second head injury before fully recovering from the first one can lead to serious brain injury.

  • Return to normal activities of daily living and normal social interaction is encouraged to speed recovery.

  • Stress can make symptoms worse. Help calm yourself by resting in a quiet place and imagining a peaceful scene. Relax your muscles by soaking in a hot bath or taking a hot shower.

  • Limit activities that require you to concentrate heavily. This includes taking tests if you are in school or doing tasks at work that require intense focus. You may also need to take rest breaks during the day. 

  • Take over-the-counter acetaminophen to relieve headache pain. Take them as directed on the package. Don't take ibuprofen or aspirin after a head injury.

  • If you become dizzy, sit or lie down in a safe place until the sensation passes. Don’t drive when you feel dizzy or disoriented.

  • If you’re having trouble sleeping, try to keep a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Avoid or limit caffeine and nicotine. Also don't drink alcohol. It may help you sleep at first, but your sleep will not be restful.

  • Give yourself time to heal. Your recovery will take some time. When you have symptoms, remember that you won’t feel this way forever. In time the symptoms will go away and you’ll be back to yourself.

As your symptoms go away, you may be able to go back to your normal activities. The time it takes to recover from a concussion can vary from weeks to months. In rare cases, symptoms can last for years.

The effects of a concussion often go away in 7 to 10 days and the vast majority of people who have had a concussion have recovered after 3 months. If you have symptoms or problems that last more than 3 months, you may have a problem called postconcussion syndrome. Discuss this possibility with your healthcare provider.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider right away or go to the emergency room if you or someone else loses consciousness after a blow to the head or if any of these occur:

  • Headache that gets worse and does not go away.

  • Weakness, numbness or decreased coordination.

  • Nausea or vomiting.

  • Slurred speech.

  • Feeling very confused.

  • Feeling very drowsy.

  • Convulsions or seizures.

These could be signs of a serious condition that needs treatment right away.

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