Concussions 101

How do you know if it’s just something you need to take some rest for, or if you need to get emergency help? Here’s what you need to know about concussions.

Young female athlete receiving care for concussion.

While often thought of as a natural byproduct of sports, especially among young people, concussions are actually a form of brain injury. Increasingly, professional sports players are talking about their experiences with concussions in sports, and organizations like the NFL are paying money over concussion settlement claims.

So what exactly is a concussion? How do you know if it’s just something you need to take some rest for, or if you need to get emergency help? Here’s what you need to know about concussions.

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a type of brain injury. When a concussion occurs, the brain is shaken within the skull. This can cause chemical changes within the brain, brain swelling, and damaged brain cells.

Concussions are usually caused by direct contact with the head, such as the head getting hit with an object or a person falling and hitting their head. However, concussions can also be caused by significant blows to the body. If an object hits the body hard enough, it can cause the brain to shake back and forth within the skull hard enough to cause a concussion, even if the head never experienced any direct contact.

Signs and symptoms of a concussion

The signs and symptoms of a concussion can vary from person to person. One common misconception is that dilated pupils are a sign of a concussion. While this can be a sign of a traumatic brain injury, Matthew Lorincz, M.D., Ph.D., a Michigan Medicine sports neurologist, says it’s not a reliable way to tell, as pupil dilation can have many other causes.

Here are some common signs and symptoms the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends looking for to tell if someone has a concussion:

  • Memory loss of what happened immediately before the event
  • Confusion or not recognizing people
  • Moving clumsily, being suddenly uncoordinated or having problems balancing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

Some symptoms may take a couple of days to show up. If someone gets a concussion, check on them over the next few days to determine whether these symptoms have appeared.

When to seek medical help for a concussion

While the symptoms above are common, there are certain signs that are red flags. More serious concussions may exhibit dangerous signs, such as:

  • Pupils that are different sizes
  • Seizures
  • A loss of consciousness, even if it was brief
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech

If you have signs of a serious concussion, call an ambulance or have someone take you to the emergency room immediately. These symptoms require professional medical help as soon as possible.

How to treat a concussion

If your concussion isn’t life-threatening, there are several ways to start the healing process. The first thing to do is take life easy for a few days. Avoid screen time and loud music. Make sure you’re getting regular sleep. Avoid strenuous physical activity for a few days, especially any kind of situation where you could injure your head again.

As you start to heal, resume your normal lifestyle gradually. If work or school triggers headaches or other concussion symptoms, take a break until you feel better. You can use common painkillers, such as acetaminophen, to ease the pain.

How to avoid concussions

Although it’s helpful to be able to treat concussions, it’s better to avoid them in the first place. Getting multiple concussions can lead to a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of dementia. CTE is common in former athletes who have experienced repeated sub-concussive and concussive impacts to their brains. CTE and other brain injuries are linked to Alzheimer’s disease. To avoid these serious conditions, it’s not enough to have concussion protocols in place. You must also guard against repeated blows to the head which may not produce concussion symptoms.

To prevent concussions in small children in case of a car accident, make sure they are in an appropriate car seat and are buckled securely. When choosing a playground for your child, pick a place that has softer ground. Playgrounds with grounds covered in bark or recycled rubber absorb more impact than cement does.

If you (or your child) play sports, always wear a helmet. Make sure the helmet fits properly. In addition to caring for yourself, encourage others to avoid concussions too. Culture is also important when it comes to staying safe in sports. You can be a positive example of safe behavior through helmet-wearing and enforcing rules concerning safety equipment.

No matter how safe you try to be, there is always a chance someone will still get a concussion. The best way to prepare for this is to have a plan in place. Before starting a game, create a set of guidelines for everyone. If someone is suspected of having a concussion, have them leave the game. Record when and how the concussion happened. Just in case, it’s a good idea to have everyone’s healthcare provider information on file.

By treating concussions with the seriousness they deserve, we can keep everyone safer. If you or a loved one ever experiences a concussion, please go to the nearest emergency room.

If you are not sure if it’s a concussion, try telehealth to talk to a caring provider who can help!

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