Locations:
Search IconSearch

Should You Worry About Minor Head Injuries?

Repeated trauma over time can have a cumulative effect

woman with ice on concussed head

Scenario one: You’re playing ball, get beaned in the head and start to feel nauseous and dizzy. Uh-oh. You know there’s a possibility of a concussion, so you go to your nearest emergency room.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Scenario two: Same ballgame, same beaning, but you feel fine. No need to worry or see a doctor, right?

Well, you may want to reconsider. In this Q&A, concussion expert Richard Figler, MD, discusses these minor head injuries, called subconcussive hits, and their impact on the brain.

Q: What is considered a mild head injury?

A: A concussion happens when you get hit in the head hard enough to cause a transient disturbance of brain function or causes your brain not to function normally. You experience symptoms ranging from headache, dizziness or nausea to feeling confused or out of it. A “mild” concussion is one that is not life-threatening but typically requires a doctor’s care.

So if you took a small hit to the head and had any concussion symptoms, you should leave the activity right away. You should then have a doctor examine you to rule out a concussion. (We would consider it a concussion until proven otherwise.)

A subconcussive blow is one rung below a mild concussion. You get hit in the head but you don’t experience symptoms. In this case, we would not suspect a concussion (but symptoms can come on hours after hit, so monitor closely). However, this minor blow may still cause damage over time. We would be naïve to think there’s not some force that’s transmitted to the brain from these milder hits. We simply don’t know enough about these milder hits to definitively say how dangerous they are.

Q: Are subconcussive impacts dangerous?

A: There have been studies on accelerometers (a device which measures acceleration) and helmets, but the data is difficult to interpret because:

  • The force that hits the helmet doesn’t get transmitted all the way to the brain, so it’s hard to measure completely.
  • For studies involving athletes with no symptoms, we can’t be sure they’re telling the truth about the lack of symptoms or if their trauma is worth noting. So we don’t know how many subconcussive hits are potentially problematic down the road.
  • We don’t know what effect, if any, these hits have on the brain over time. The literature’s not there to support a conclusive answer.

I’ve had situations where athletes — who often sustain blows to their heads — have gotten concussions from a small unexpected hit on the back of the head. While soccer and football players often develop neck strength that may absorb smaller blows, if they receive a hit they’re not ready for, they can be out for two or more weeks with a concussion because they never had time to prepare for that unexpected hit.

Advertisement

Q: Are mild head injuries more dangerous for younger people than older people?

A: While the younger brain may heal faster, we also know that the developing brain in younger people is probably more irritated by subtle blows to the head. As athletes get older, we think the brain can withstand a little more force.

Plus, younger people may not report concussion symptoms because they don’t know they’re having them. Children are notorious for not being able to explain what a headache is or exactly how they’re feeling. So we can’t definitively say that the younger athlete can sustain these minor blows without any significant repercussions.

The takeaway is we need to protect younger athletes:

  • Limit blows to the head as their brains develop (perhaps through strict tackling guidelines and enforcing proper techniques).
  • Educate them about concussion symptoms.
  • Children and young teens need to know when to tell somebody so they can pull themselves off the field right away and recover. The best treatment is prevention and education. Make sure everyone, the athlete, teammates, coaches and parents are aware of the symptoms of concussion.

Q: When should you see your doctor about a head trauma?

A: You should visit an emergency room if you experience serious symptoms, such as:

  • Decrease in mental status or neurological function.
  • Numbness or tingling.
  • Worsening headache.
  • Prolonged loss of consciousness.
  • Repetitive vomiting.
  • Significant neck pain.
  • Vision loss.

Follow up with your doctor about hits to the head that cause both major and minor concussion symptoms. More minor symptoms include:

  • Dizziness.
  • Feeling foggy.
  • Light sensitivity.
  • Noise sensitivity.
  • Headache.
  • Head pressure.
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering.

But pay attention to anything that would make someone stop play and not be able to continue for even a short time. The motto is “When in doubt, sit them out.” Remember: It’s safer to err on the side of caution. Even if you don’t experience concussion symptoms, call your doctor if you have any concerns following a subconcussive impact.

Physician visits are especially important for athletes that sustained concussions because we need to ensure their health before they return to play. We can work with them on symptom reduction faster than they could on their own. We also offer guidelines about how to:

  • Manage symptoms.
  • Return to play safely and effectively.
  • Return to the classroom effectively and with fewer symptoms.
  • Recover completely.

And we emphasize concussion education. We help you recognize the signs of a concussion so you can pull yourself out of play sooner. You’ll recover faster than someone who stays in the game with concussion symptoms.

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

People biking, scootering and walking in a park
June 11, 2024/Children's Health
Cycle Smart: 8 Bike Safety Tips for Kids

Make sure their bike is the right size, find a helmet that fits properly and teach them the rules of the road

Person in a deep squat
June 13, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Here’s the Right Way To Do a Squat

Squat smart with proper technique, including a neutral spine, wide knees and an engaged core

People in gym doing cool down stretches
June 10, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Why You Shouldn’t Skip Cool Down Exercises

This important step gives your body time to return to its resting state while reducing muscle cramps, dizziness and injury

Person walking dog and person running in a park, with person sitting on a bench
June 5, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Walking vs. Running: Which Is Better for You?

The short answer? The best exercise is the one you’ll actually do

Hand holding cellphone with walking app, with feet walking and footprints
May 17, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Should You Aim To Walk 10,000 Steps a Day?

Walking is a great goal, but how many steps are best for you depends on factors like your fitness level and age

Person walking on walking pad at home office desk
May 16, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
What’s a Walking Pad — And Do They Really Work?

A walking pad is a simplified treadmill that can fit under your desk and help you get more movement in your day

Person stretching on floor mats in their home gym area
May 8, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Strength Finder: How To Create a Home Gym You’ll Use

First, reflect on your specific workout goals, and then pick and choose your fitness equipment

Person jogging in foggy park among big, green trees
May 2, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
What Is Slow Running and Does It Work?

Reducing your pace allows you to log more miles and train your body for the stress of running

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad