August 10, 2020

Suspect a Concussion? How to Help (Not Hurt) Your Recovery

Know the warning signs, what to do and what not to do

Review brain scans for concussion evidence

Between 1.6 and 3.8 million concussions are believed to occur across the United States each year. Thankfully, an increased awareness has prompted an increase in diagnosis of concussive injuries.

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

But what exactly is a concussion?

“It’s a short-lived functional brain injury typically caused by a bump or blow to the head,” explains concussion specialist, Richard Figler, MD. “A concussion sets off a chemical process in the brain as it’s trying to heal itself. During that process, and depending on what part of the brain was impacted, it can affect different functions like balance, memory, focus or even cause visual disturbances.”

There’s also usually a neck component when it comes to concussions. When you hit your head, the neck can take on some of that force as well.

If you’ve been diagnosed or suspect that a friend or family member has a concussion, treatment — including physical and mental rest — should start right away. Don’t wait to seek help from a medical professional with expertise in evaluating and managing concussions.

What are the signs, symptoms & warning signs of a concussion?

Signs and symptoms of a concussion can occur immediately, hours or even days after the initial “hit” or fall. Symptoms can change over time, depending on activity level and with other potentially associated injuries, making them difficult to recognize and manage.

Advertisement

“Only about 5 to 10% of people who get concussions will experience loss of consciousness,” says Dr. Figler. “Loss of consciousness does equal a concussion, but not having loss of consciousness does not mean you didn’t have a concussion either.”

Anyone experiencing or demonstrating any of the following sign and symptoms after suffering a direct blow or jarring contact with their head or body may have a concussion and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.

Signs:

  • A dazed or stunned appearance.
  • Personality or behavioral changes.
  • Confusion.
  • Loss of consciousness — even brief.
  • Clumsiness.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Seems “out of it.”
  • Forgetting events prior to or after a “hit.”
  • Slow response to questions or repeatedly asking questions.

Symptoms:

  • Headache.
  • Nausea.
  • Balance problems.
  • Double, blurry or changed vision.
  • Sensitivity to light and/or noise.
  • Excessive fatigue or drowsiness.
  • Trouble comprehending, concentrating and/or paying attention.
  • Irritability, nervousness.
  • Feeling increasingly emotional or sad.
  • Feeling “just not right” or in a “fog.”
  • Changes in sleep patterns.

Because more concerning problems can arise in the first 24 to 48 hours after a head injury, anyone suspected of sustaining a concussion should be monitored for worsening symptoms.

If you have any concerns or notice any of the following warning signs after a head injury, always seek medical attention immediately.

Warning signs:

  • Repetitive severe nausea or vomiting.
  • Pupils that are enlarged or unequal in size.
  • Unusual or bizarre behavior.
  • Inability to recognize people or places.
  • Seizures.
  • Severe dizziness or feeling lightheaded.
  • Progressively worsening headache.
  • Double or blurry vision.
  • Numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, clumsiness.
  • Excessive drowsiness or fainting.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Difficulty waking from sleep.

How do doctors assess a concussion?

Since there’s such a wide range of symptoms, doctors use an array of tests to evaluate, monitor and diagnose a concussion.

Advertisement

“We’ll test everything from checking their balance, to their reaction time, to some in-depth neurocognitive tests,” says Dr. Figler. “But every evaluation will include a graded symptom checklist and then an exam to make sure that there’s nothing lurking that we don’t outwardly see.”

Other tests can include: eye movement and function testing, a cervical spine exam and a thorough neurological exam to make sure there’s nothing underlying that might warrant further imaging or testing down the road.

5 steps to take after a concussion

Follow these tips to start the healing process after a concussion:

  1. Identify and avoid triggers. Any activity that produces or increases symptoms is considered a trigger. It’s important for you to know what aggravates your symptoms to help recovery. For example, if bright lights are bothering you more than they have in the past, control that brightness by turning down the light, wear sunglasses or use a brimmed hat such as a baseball cap.
  2. Get some sleep. Our brain recovers during sleep. Sleep is even more important when recovering from a concussion. Dr. Figler says it’s common to feel more exhausted from daily activities such as school or homework while recovering from a concussion. If needed, take short naps (30 to 60 minutes) when tired. But try not to take so many that they interfere with your ability to sleep later on at night. Minimize any distractions, such as TV or phones, while trying to fall asleep.
  3. Rest your brain. Over stimulating your brain after a head injury will not allow it to rest and recover. Using your brain to think hard, read, study or try to learn new material may be very difficult and may aggravate your condition. Processing new information can be harder for anyone who is concussed. If you have work or studying to do, spread it out and take frequent breaks. Students should talk to teachers about adjusting assignments while they recover.
  4. Rest your body. While recovering, avoid doing anything that significantly increases your heart rate unless you’ve been cleared by a physician. Light activity, such as walking or riding a stationary bike, may actually help in your recovery, as long as it doesn’t worsen the symptoms.
  5. Be smart. Rest and recover. Returning to sports or other activities too soon after a concussion can worsen symptoms and keep you off the court or field longer.

4 things to avoid after a concussion

Steer clear of these things to optimize your recovery:

  1. Excessive physical activity. An increased heart rate may worsen your symptoms, dragging out your recovery.
  2. Strenuous mental activities. Reading, computer work, playing video games, texting and watching TV can overstimulate your brain, says Dr. Figler. It’s OK to try these activities, but if symptoms occur, you should stop, rest and recover before returning to them.
  3. Driving too soon. As a precaution, do not drive for at least 24 hours after a concussive injury. Your reaction time may be slowed down, increasing the risk of accidents and further injury.
  4. Pain relievers. Use caution taking aspirin or anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®) or naproxen (Aleve®). Theoretically, they may increase your risk of bleeding. They can also mask symptoms, leading to worsening symptoms when the medications wear off.

Related Articles

Male with eyes closed sitting hunched over, pinching area between their eyes
January 29, 2024
Headache and Fatigue: 11 Possible Causes That Can Trigger Both

Many factors, like dehydration, a cold or even your medication, can result in these common symptoms

person with concussion
July 28, 2020
Is It Safe to Sleep After a Concussion?

The short answer from a concussion specialist

child with concussion at emergency room
May 4, 2020
10 Things Parents Should Know About Children and Concussions

For starters, they’re not just football injuries

Man fell off ladder and hit his head so has a possible concussion
September 3, 2019
Hit Your Head? Anyone (Not Just Athletes) Can Get a Concussion

What to watch out for + what treatment is needed

female on couch reading a nasal spray bottle label
February 20, 2024
What To Know About Nasal Spray for Migraines

Among the options is a fast-acting medication that offers relief in as little as 15 minutes

two people doing jumping jacks on pavement outside
February 19, 2024
How Exercise Can Help Boost Your Memory

Cardio is great for improving cognition, but strength and balance training are just as important

Caregiver and elderly male with head bent down
February 2, 2024
After Your Stroke: How To Handle 14 Common Complications

Your age, the type of stroke you had, the cause and the location can all impact your recovery

close up of caregiver's hands helping elderly person using a walker
January 2, 2024
Long-Term Care Options for Someone With Alzheimer’s Disease

It’s critical to understand the wishes of your loved one and seek their involvement whenever possible

Trending Topics

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try

Exercise and diet over three months is hard to accomplish.
Everything You Need To Know About the 75 Hard Challenge

Following five critical rules daily for 75 days may not be sustainable

Person in foreground standing in front of many presents with person in background holding gift bags.
What Is Love Bombing?

This form of psychological and emotional abuse is often disguised as excessive flattery

Ad