How serious are they?
It’s the time of year when you want to be outside enjoying your favorite summertime activities. For most of us, this means doing things that require us to be physically active. While this is great for your health, it can put you at an increased risk for an injury, particularly a head injury. How do you know if you have a concussion after hitting your head? How dangerous are concussions? What should you do to treat one? How do you prevent yourself from getting one?
Concussions result from a traumatic injury to your brain and can temporarily alter how your brain functions. Your brain is soft and has the texture of gelatin. Normally, it’s protected by the fluid inside your head. Anything that results in your brain hitting the inside of your skull can injure it. If you take a blow to your head, experience violent shaking of your head and upper body, or have a sudden acceleration/deceleration of your head, such as in a car accident, you’re more likely to get a concussion. Many believe you can only develop a concussion if you lose consciousness after the injury. This isn’t true! You can actually have a concussion and not even realize it. In fact, sometimes, symptoms of a concussion are subtle and don’t appear right after the event.
The most common symptoms of a concussion are headache, confusion, and amnesia, particularly of the event that was the cause. These usually happen right after the injury. Other symptoms that occur close to the time of injury include dizziness, ringing in your ears, nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, appearing dazed, delayed responses to questions, fatigue, and temporary loss of consciousness. Symptoms of a concussion that appear several hours or days after the injury are difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering, irritability, personality changes, increased sensitivity to light and noise, trouble sleeping, depression, and changes to taste/smell. A critical consideration is children because they’re prone to hitting their heads and won’t be able to communicate how they’re feeling. Some symptoms they can exhibit include appearing dazed, unusually cranky, tires easily, unsteady walking, crying excessively, a change in eating/sleeping patterns, and decreased interest in their favorite toys.
Certain things can increase your risk of developing a concussion. This can be participating in contact sports, like football, hockey, or boxing. You increase your risk even more if you aren’t wearing the proper protective equipment while playing these sports. Some other possible risk factors of a concussion are being in a car accident, being involved in an accident if you’re a pedestrian, or riding a bike and falling (this is especially true for children and the elderly). You are also at a heightened risk if you’ve had a previous concussion.
If you experience an injury to your head and have repeated vomiting, lose consciousness for more than 30 seconds, have a headache that continues to get worse, changes in your physical coordination, changes to your behavior, confusion, or slurred speech, you should go to the emergency room.
You should also seek immediate medical care if you have seizures, vision changes (ex. one pupil is larger than the other), dizziness that won’t go away, or any symptoms that worsen over time. For children, if they have any of the previously mentioned symptoms or a large bump or bruise anywhere on their head, they should be seen by a doctor immediately. This is especially important if they’re less than a year old. If your child hits their head and isn’t showing any signs of a serious head injury, they remain alert and respond appropriately to you, they probably don’t need to be seen by a doctor immediately. Also, it’s okay to let them sleep if they want to take a nap. Most pediatricians recommend that a child be seen within a day or two of hitting their head just to be safe.
When the injury to your brain is severe, you might need to be hospitalized overnight to be monitored to ensure that you don’t have any dangerous complications, like swelling or bleeding in/around your brain. However, most of the time, it’ll be okay for you to be at home, but you need to have someone stay with you for the first 24 hours after your injury. This is to make sure any symptoms you have don’t get worse. To do this, the person will need to wake you up regularly to confirm that you don’t have any changes in neurological function.
The best at-home treatment for a concussion is to rest physically and mentally. Avoid any sports or activities that worsen your symptoms or would put you at increased risk for another head injury. Your doctor will tell you when it’s safe to resume these activities. You should also avoid activities requiring mental concentration and thinking because this can worsen your symptoms. Some of these would be playing video games, watching TV, doing work, reading, or using an electronic device. If these activities worsen your symptoms, your doctor will probably recommend shortening the amount of time you spend at work/school and decreasing your workload until you feel better. If you have a headache, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers, like acetaminophen. Talk to your doctor before taking ibuprofen or aspirin because they can increase your risk of bleeding.
You can take steps to reduce your chances of developing a concussion. When participating in sports or recreational activities, wear safety equipment that fits appropriately and has been well-maintained. Always wear your seat belt whenever you’re in a vehicle to prevent being thrown around inside or ejected if an accident occurs. Another key idea is to make your home safe by having your floors free of things that might cause you to trip and have plenty of lighting so you can see. Both of these can help prevent falls. For children, it’s important to use baby gates at the tops and bottoms of stairs and install window guards. If you exercise regularly, you increase your leg muscle strength, which helps you maintain better balance.
Concussions can happen despite doing everything you can to prevent one. If you have one, take the necessary steps to feel better and prevent further injuries. If you have any questions or concerns about concussions, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit MedlinePlus’ concussion page at https://medlineplus.gov/concussion.html