Concussions: Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment

By Chris Bodle, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
March 2, 2020

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI) that can result in altered brain function and is typically caused by a blow to the head or a sudden movement of the head. Most often, you will hear of concussions caused by injuries from contact sports, falls, or car accidents, but concussions can occur any time a person sustains an injury to the head.

Sometimes, a concussion might cause immediate symptoms like a loss of consciousness, headache, or confusion. Other times, symptoms are more subtle, and they may not appear until hours after the initial injury. It’s important to seek treatment from a doctor if you suspect you or a loved one has a concussion. Most of the time, mild concussions resolve on their own within a week or two if a person rests. However, in some cases, severe concussions can require urgent medical attention.

What Is a Concussion?

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) that results in altered brain function, and sometimes unconsciousness. They can occur after impact to your head or after an injury that causes sudden head movement. Usually, concussions aren’t life-threatening, but they can result in temporary symptoms that need medical attention.

Common Causes of Concussions

Any activity that causes a blow to the head or violent shaking to the head, can cause a concussion. Some of the most common causes of concussions include sports injuries (usually high-contact sports), car accidents, and falls.

Other accidents such as horseback riding accidents, cycling accidents, or assaults can also cause concussions.

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Concussion Symptoms

While concussions usually occur after a blow to the head or violent shaking of the head, concussion symptoms can be subtle. It’s possible you could have a concussion and not realize it. Some of the most common concussion symptoms include:

Keep in mind that concussion symptoms can emerge hours or even days after the initial injury. Delayed symptoms can include:

Post-concussion syndrome

In some people, concussions can cause ongoing symptoms that last for weeks or months after the initial trauma. This is called post-concussion syndrome, and can sometimes be associated with a neck injury that occurred at the time of the concussion. The symptoms of post-concussion syndrome include:

  • Tension headaches or migraines
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of memory
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Blurred vision
  • Noise and light sensitivity
  • If you suspect you might have post-concussion syndrome after a head injury, it’s important to talk to a doctor.

Signs of concussion symptoms in toddlers and babies

Since babies and toddlers may not be able to communicate their symptoms, it can be hard to tell if they have a concussion. If a child experienced a blow to the head or a fall, the following symptoms could be a sign of a concussion:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Inconsolable crying
  • Unusual quietness
  • Temporary loss of skills or coordination
  • Refusal to eat or drink
  • Irritability or crankiness
  • If you’re concerned your child may have a concussion, talk to a health care provider.

Diagnosing Concussions

The best way to confirm a concussion is to talk to a doctor, who can evaluate your symptoms and conduct the testing needed to diagnose a concussion.

While there’s no specific “concussion test,” some doctors or certified athletic trainers might use a special eye test to assess visual changes related to a concussion, including pupil size, eye movement, or light sensitivity.

After reviewing your medical history, your doctor will likely conduct a neurological exam to check your vision, hearing, strength, balance, and coordination, all of which can be impaired during a concussion.

The doctor may also check your cognitive skills, such as your memory and ability to concentrate.

Finally, your doctor might conduct an MRI or a CT scan if they suspect a severe concussion or if you have ongoing symptoms like severe headaches, vomiting, or seizures.

Concussion Treatments

Concussions usually don’t require major interventions—they typically resolve on their own with ample time and rest. Most people with a mild concussion can recover within 7-10 days. Your doctor may recommend you rest physically and mentally as you recover from a concussion. This may mean avoiding physical exertion like exercise and sports, which can exacerbate your injury, along with taking a mental break from work or homework.

If a child, teenager, or young adult is injured in a sporting event or practice, it is important they are removed from all activities until assessed by a doctor and cleared to return to play.

In rare cases, a head injury might require surgery or other medical procedures to relieve brain bleeding or swelling.

What You Can Do at Home

Since the best thing to do for a concussion is physically and mentally rest, you might opt out of strenuous activities like physical exercise, homework, or even video games.

There’s a common myth that a person with a concussion shouldn’t go to sleep. But if you’re awake, conversing with others, and you’re not developing symptoms like confusion, severe headache, vomiting or difficulty walking, it’s generally safe to sleep.

After receiving a concussion diagnosis, it’s actually important to get adequate sleep. Sleep is a restorative process for the brain, making it vital for someone to recover from a concussion.

If you’re experiencing headaches from a concussion, ask your doctor before taking over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. In some cases, these medications can increase the risk of bleeding, so make sure to talk to a doctor first.

Prevention Tips

Concussions are unexpected by nature but there are some practices that may reduce your chances of getting one.

If you play high-contact sports such as football, hockey, or boxing, always wear a helmet and other protective equipment. Similarly, wear a seatbelt when driving to avoid a major injury in the case of an accident.

If you’ve sustained a concussion, it’s important to prevent repeat concussions, since they can result in permanent brain damage and long-term disability. Avoid strenuous activities as long as you have symptoms, and consult with your doctor before returning to them.

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When to See a Doctor

If you suspect you or a loved one has a concussion or post-concussion syndrome, talk to a doctor who can evaluate and help manage symptoms. Any child who sustains a head injury and has any symptoms of a concussion needs to be evaluated and cleared before returning to sports or any other activity.

Sometimes, a concussion can be accompanied by a spinal injury. Always call an ambulance if someone has the following symptoms along with a head injury, since these may indicate an injury to the neck or spine:

  • Extreme pain or pressure in the neck or back
  • Weakness, loss of coordination, or paralysis anywhere in the body
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities
  • Impaired breathing
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

If you notice any of these symptoms, try to keep the person’s head, neck, and back, as stationary as possible until help arrives to avoid further injury.

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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chris Bodle, MD

Dr. Bodle is a board certified emergency medicine physician. He received his medical degree from Indiana University School of Medicine, and completed his residency in emergency medicine at Emory University. In addition to K Health, he currently works as an Emergency Medicine physician in an Urban, Level 1 Trauma Center in the south east.

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