What You Need to Know About Concussions

While millions of people regularly watch football in America, in households around the country parents are becoming increasingly worried about how often their football-playing children are suffering from knocks to the head resulting in concussions.

And if you think it’s just boys you have to worry about, because they’re considered more “rough and tumble” in general, keep in mind that, according to a study done by researchers as the University of North Carolina recently, girls are actually around 50 percent more likely (1) to receive a sports-related concussion than boys. Of course, it’s not just children who are at risk. Millions of adults suffer from concussions each year due to things like car accidents, falls, trips, slips, and domestic violence.

Although you might think concussions aren’t much of a worry, they can cause long-term effects which can last decades,(2) and repeated head trauma can lead to a variety of potentially severe cognitive issues. To help keep you and your family safe, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of concussions, and what steps to take if they occur.

What are Concussions, and Who Is Most at Risk?

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). It is typically caused by a bump, jolt, or blow to the head, or by a body knock that is intense enough that it causes the head and the brain to move back and forth quickly. When this sudden movement occurs, the brain may twist or bounce around inside the head, which in turn can cause trauma. In particular, brain cells and/or neurons may be damaged, and chemical changes can occur.

The risk with getting a concussion is that the harm to the neurons can change the way they communicate with the brain’s circuitry. As well, TBIs can cause breaks in the semi-permeable wall that allows good substances to flow in and out of the blood-brain barrier, and which blocks potentially harmful substances. When this leak occurs, inflammation happens in response, to help plug the gap. While this is positive, if there is chronic inflammation (3), longer-term damage can be the result. Other secondary injuries and brain disruptions can also arise from concussions.

When it comes to who is most at risk of concussions, generally top of mind is people who are involved in sporting activities which can involve direct blows to the head or other forceful contact (think boxing, football, lacrosse, soccer, or hockey). In addition, it’s possible (but unproven) that some people are more at risk because their brains float around in their skulls more than others; or that people who are unstable on their feet and more prone to falling over and knocking their heads could be more likely to get a concussion (such as the elderly or infirm). Girls may also be more prone to concussions.

The Signs of Concussions

Because no two concussions are ever exactly the same, they can therefore be a little tricky to diagnose. However, while there is no definitive way to say someone has a concussion, such as through a blood test or other screening, there are some common symptoms to be on the lookout for.

For example, signs you have a concussion (4) include feeling off, cloudy, or rather out of it, or having other people notice something doesn’t seem right with you. You might be slurring your speech, your balance could be off, or your coordination may be lacking. If you have a concussion you might be dazed and confused too, giving a blank stare, and leaving other people with the impression that “nobody’s home.”

Changes in personality are another common sign of a concussion. You could start acting silly, seem agitated or emotional, or be thinking much slower than usual. You might take longer to respond to questions, form sentences, and make decisions; and also have difficulty recognizing people you should know.

Physically, if you’re concussed you might lose consciousness for a period, and/or find you end up vomiting repeatedly. You could also suffer from blurred vision, and get a headache that doesn’t go away and/or gets more severe, even after you’ve been resting. You could also get more fatigued, or become harder to rouse.

What to Do if You or a Loved One has a Concussion

If you think you or a loved one, or some other person, might have a concussion, it’s important to seek medical attention straight away. If a concussion is diagnosed, rest will be in order so the brain can recover. Get plenty of sleep, avoid activities which could jostle the brain or lead to further trauma, eat well, and avoid alcohol and drugs.

When you think you’re ready to go back to work, school, exercise etc., do so gradually. Increase activities slowly over time. Note that recovery may take anywhere from days to weeks and, on occasions, months. If you try to do too much too soon, you will delay this time period even further.

(1) Frequently Asked Questions about CTE

(2) Epidemiology of Sport-Related Concussions in High School Athletes: National Athletic Treatment, Injury and Outcomes Network

(3) Neuroinflammation in traumatic brain injury: A chronic response to an acute injury

(4) What is a Concussion? Signs, Symptoms & Steps to Recovery

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