What to do if you think you have a concussion

"Recovering from concussion is a process that takes patience."

For many of us – hearing ‘concussion’ can be fear-inducing. But, do you really know what this form of brain trauma is – and how to tell if you’re experiencing one? ER Physician Dr. Adrian Heller shares when it’s time to see your doctor, and steps to take for a full recovery.

What is a concussion?
A concussion is a type of brain injury caused by a trauma, kind of like a bruise to the brain that affects the brain’s function. The brain sits in the skull and a concussion can happen if it’s jostled. This can happen with direct blows to the head or a hit to body that shakes the head – like whiplash.

So, I just got hit in the head, how do I know if I have a concussion?
Someone with a concussion might have gotten knocked unconscious, appear dazed, ask the same questions repeatedly, move clumsily or have trouble remembering what just happened. If there’s any chance of a concussion, you should stop what you’re doing (especially when sports related). When you have a concussion, symptoms can vary widely. Symptoms can be immediate or delayed and they can include headaches, nausea, dizziness, bright lights bothering you. Also can generally feel groggy, have trouble concentrating, have sleep changes (more or less) or have mood changes. Concussions don’t show up on CT scans or MRI’s, so the diagnosis is clinically determined by a doctor.

When should I see a doctor (family MD or ED)?
Going to the emergency room depends on the severity of symptoms. The biggest concerns are that there is some bleeding inside the skull or a fracture to the skull itself. While that’s rare, we should be especially concerned if there is repeated vomiting, persistent confusion or significant drowsiness. If you’re knocked out you should probably head to the ER. If your symptoms are mild, especially if they slowly develop over days, you should check in with your family doctor. They can help confirm the diagnosis and manage your recovery.

What should I do to get better?
This is still a developing field, so it isn’t 100% clear what the best way to heal is. At this point it seems like the best thing to do is to have 1-2 days of brain and physical rest. This means very minimal TV/reading/socializing. These days will be boring unfortunately. After this, slowly increase activity, starting with 30 min chunks. Re-assess the next day and if doing a little activity didn’t cause symptoms to worsen or new ones to appear, it’s okay to do a bit more.

How about getting back to sports and being active?
The same idea of very slow progression applies. Short walks before long walks, short jogs before long runs. If you have had a concussion, you should see a doctor before going back to any contact sports.

Do I need to be woken up during the night?
Nope. It’s best to let people sleep/recover. The only thing to make sure of is that someone is able to wake up, but if they’re that drowsy then you should probably be going to the hospital.

How long will it take for me to get better?
Usually between 1-4 weeks, but recovering from concussion is a process that takes patience. Going back to activities before you are ready is likely to make your symptoms worse, and your recovery may take longer. Also, if you’ve had one concussion you’re more susceptible to having another, so you don’t want to go back to sports too soon.

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