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What everyone should know about concussions

Kids playing soccer

If you or someone you know takes a knock to the head, you need to take it seriously. Here are the symptoms to watch for and what to do afterward.

Kim Robinson

By Kim Robinson

If you’ve ever seen someone stumble or throw up after being hit in the head, you know how scary concussions can be. They’re brain injuries that can be serious and affect all aspects of people’s lives.

And concussions don’t just happen to pro athletes. In a nationwide NPR survey, nearly 1 in 4 Americans said they’d experienced a concussion. And a 2019 study by researchers at the University of Colorado found that more concussions happened on campus from non-sports activities than from those on the field.

For most people, getting a mild concussion once or twice won’t lead to any lasting damage. That’s especially true if you take the right steps to protect yourself — or someone else — after having one. Here’s what to know and how to spot the signs of a concussion.

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What is a concussion?

A concussion is a traumatic head injury that temporarily impacts your brain function. “It can be caused by any force applied to the body, big or small,” says John Barley, DO. He’s a sports medicine physician in Newport, Virginia. It usually happens from a hit or bump to the head or a jolt to the body that causes your head to jerk backward or to the side.

This sudden movement can cause your brain to move or hit the inside of your skull. That can create chemical changes in the brain or even damage brain cells, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Aside from sports, the top causes include falls and car accidents.

Concussions can happen at any age. But they seem to be most common among young people. A study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine looked at more than 40,000 people who had a concussion. The researchers found that 32% happened to kids between 10 and 19 years old. In kids and teens, concussions often happen on the playground, while bike riding or while playing sports such as football, ice hockey and soccer.

Recommended reading: 3 itchy conditions you can catch from your kids.

What are the symptoms of a concussion?

Thankfully, most signs of a concussion show up right away. You may lose consciousness, even just briefly. Or you may stagger when you get up, have trouble following instructions or have a headache. Symptoms can also be as mild as just feeling a bit off.

But other times, you may not know at first how serious the injury is. Symptoms, sometimes more serious ones, can take hours or even days to crop up. That’s why it’s important to stay watchful for a few days after the injury.

According to the CDC and Cleveland Clinic, other common concussion symptoms include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Memory loss (for example, not remembering how you got hurt)
  • Feeling dizzy, groggy or sluggish
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Double or blurry vision
  • Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping much more or less than usual or trouble sleeping)
  • Depression or sadness
  • Irritability, nervousness and anxiety
  • Difficulty paying attention

Signs of a concussion can be harder to spot in babies or young kids who can’t express how they’re feeling. That’s why the CDC recommends paying attention to these signs, especially if you know your child has bumped their head or fallen:

  • Crying more than usual
  • A headache that won’t go away
  • Changes in the way they play, perform or act at school
  • Changes in nursing, eating or sleeping patterns
  • Becoming easily upset or having more temper tantrums
  • Lack of interest in usual activities or favorite toys
  • Loss of new skills, such as toilet training
  • Loss of balance, unsteady walking
  • Poor attention

If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your health care team right away. A concussion turns into an emergency when these symptoms are more severe — for example, if your headache keeps getting worse, you continue to vomit or you have numbness or weakness in your arms or legs.

How long do concussion symptoms last?

Most people recover from a concussion within days. But symptoms can last as long as 14 to 21 days or more.

Kids usually take longer to recover than adults. On average, children can have symptoms for about 4 weeks until they fully recover, while many adults can feel like themselves again in just 2 weeks, Dr. Barley says.

How do you treat a concussion?

If you suspect that you or someone else has a concussion, the most important thing is to avoid further injury. For example, if you’re playing a sport, you should come out of the game right away.

Your next priority is to contact your doctor to figure out if you have a concussion. Your doctor may test your balance, coordination and cognitive abilities, such as your memory. They may also run imaging tests to check for bleeding or swelling in your skull.

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If no other issues are found, the general advice is to take it easy for 24 to 48 hours, says Catie Mawdsley, MS. She’s a speech-language pathologist with St. Francis Rehabilitation & Sports Medicine in Shakopee, Minnesota. In the first few days after a concussion, you can help yourself recover by:

  • Limiting your activities. Don’t overtax your brain or your body in the first 48 hours after a concussion. That doesn’t mean you should lie in bed all day. According to the Cleveland Clinic, too much bed rest can slow your recovery. A relaxing walk around the block might help you heal.
  • Making sleep a priority. A good night’s sleep can do your brain wonders. And while it’s a good idea to have someone check on you every few hours, they don’t have to wake you up.
  • Avoiding triggers that make your symptoms worse. Certain triggers such as bright sunlight, watching TV or listening to loud music can aggravate your concussion symptoms.
  • Skipping some pain medication. It’s not a good idea to take aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as naproxen (Aleve®) or ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) soon after having a concussion. They can mask some of the serious concussion symptoms and also thin the blood, increasing the risk for bleeding. After a concussion diagnosis, acetaminophen (Tylenol®) is a safer option, says Dr. Barley. (You can find great deals on pain relievers at the Optum Store.)

Let your symptoms guide your return to normal activities. “The biggest treatment is time,” says Dr. Barley. As you start to feel better, gradually return to work or school. And continue to enjoy relaxing activities to stay active (as in no contact sports). You’ll know you’re recovered when you can do your normal daily routine without any symptoms.

If your condition isn't getting better, get help. You may have to go beyond your primary care doctor. “It’s extremely important to find medical providers who specialize in concussions if your symptoms aren’t going away,” says Mawdsley.

A concussion isn’t something to be ignored. But when you listen to your body and give your brain space to heal, you’ll have a better chance of bouncing back to normal in no time.

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Additional sources
Concussions in America poll results: NPR
Non-sports related concussions study: JAMA Network Open (2019). “Characteristics and incidence of concussion among a US collegiate undergraduate population”
How many concussions happen in young people: Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine (2016). “The rise of concussions in the adolescent population”
The signs and symptoms of a concussion: Cleveland Clinic
Concussions symptoms in young children: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention