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What is a concussion?

A concussion is an injury to the brain caused by a blow to the head. A concussion may cause you to become temporarily confused or disoriented, have memory loss (amnesia), or become unconscious.

Concussions are the most common head injuries in sports.

How does it occur?

A concussion occurs when a blow to the head or face, or a blow to another part of the body jars the brain. The impact causes shaking, jarring, stretching, swelling, or tearing of brain tissue and delicate nerve fibers.

Sports in which concussions most commonly occur are football, gymnastics, ice hockey, soccer, and wrestling. However, concussions can occur in any sport or activity where you may get hit in the head.

What are the symptoms?

If you have had a concussion you may have any of the following symptoms:

  • headache
  • confusion
  • memory loss (amnesia)
  • loss of consciousness
  • sleepiness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • trouble thinking
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • seizures
  • loss of balance
  • blurred vision
  • sensitivity to light
  • slowed reaction times
  • emotional symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, or depression

You may have these symptoms for several days, weeks, or longer after the injury. This is called post-concussive syndrome.

If your neck hurts after a head injury, it is best to try not to move more than is necessary until it is checked by a healthcare provider. Anyone with a possibly serious neck injury should not move at all and an ambulance should be called.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and find out what happened. If you can't remember what happened, he or she may need to get this information from other people saw the accident. Your healthcare provider will:

  • do a neurologic exam
  • test your strength
  • test your memory
  • test your sensation, balance, and reflexes
  • check your vision
  • look at your eyes with a flashlight to see if your pupils are the same size

You may be tested again several times during the next hour to check for any worsening of brain function, which might occur if you have any bleeding or swelling in the brain.

Your provider may do a CT scan or an MRI of your head to be sure there is no damage to your brain. Depending on how your head injury occurred, you may have neck X-rays to check your spine.

How is it treated?

The treatment for a concussion is rest. This means you may need to miss school, work, or other activities. Exercising too soon will make your symptoms last longer and may cause more problems. Your provider may advise you to limit activities that require thinking and concentration, such as working on a computer, studying, or playing video games until your symptoms are gone. Your brain needs to rest.

Headache may be treated with a mild pain reliever, such as acetaminophen. Nausea may be treated with a prescription medicine. Clear liquids or bland foods may be helpful.

If you have had a concussion, you need to be watched by a friend or relative for 8 to 12 hours. Symptoms to report to your healthcare provider include:

  • confusion
  • seizures
  • unequal pupil sizes
  • restlessness or irritability
  • trouble using your legs or arms
  • worsening vomiting
  • headache that will not go away after taking acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • garbled speech
  • bleeding from the ears or nose
  • decreasing alertness
  • unusual sleepiness or hard to wake up
  • a change in personality

If you are stable and recovering during the next 24 hours, you should rest for another day or two. As your symptoms go away, you can start to go back to your usual daily routine. However, you should stay away from any activities that would risk reinjury. A second concussion before the first one has healed could be very serious. Your healthcare provider will tell you when it is safe to return to sports and other activities.

How can I prevent a concussion?

It is very important to understand that receiving a second blow to the head before the first injury is fully healed can be fatal, even if the second injury seems minor.

Using proper equipment (such as helmets and seat belts) and following proper techniques in sports such as football and soccer are the best ways to prevent concussions.

Written by Pierre Rouzier, MD, and Dee Ann DeRoin, MD, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-08-12
Last reviewed: 2011-05-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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