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Signs of a concussion and what to do about it

Concussion

A concussion can happen to anyone, at anytime. It can be caused by an injury to the brain from a variety of factors including: a fall, sports, a fight, motor vehicle or bicycle accidents. Concussion is a leading cause of disability in Canada and it’s estimated that there are over 200,000 concussions in this country, every year.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury, and it can affect how the brain works. You don’t have to necessarily lose consciousness or “black out,” and some symptoms are more subtle than might be expected.

Dr. Matthew Burke, director of Sunnybrook’s Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, and occupational therapist, Elke McLellan, share insights on spotting signs of concussion, why it’s important to seek medical treatment, and tips for recovering from a concussion.

Signs and symptoms of concussion

How do you know it’s not just a little bump on the head?

“Some common immediate symptoms after a concussion include brief loss of consciousness, and a change in mental state that can include confusion or disorientation,” says Dr. Burke. “If a person can’t remember what happened right before or after the injury that’s another sign a person may be concussed.”

Dr. Burke adds symptoms can also appear days after an injury and can include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Cognitive impairment (e.g. mental clouding, attention and memory difficulties)
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Mood dysregulation (e.g. anxiety, irritability, depression)

“It is important to note that there is no ‘biomarker’ to diagnose concussion, for example, a blood test or brain scan,” explains Dr. Burke. “Currently, research is underway investigating concussion biomarkers.”

When it’s time to seek medical treatment

“If a patient has prolonged loss of consciousness or altered mental state, limb weakness, slurred speech, double vision, seizures, severe or worsening headaches, they should seek attention immediately in the nearest emergency department,” says Dr. Burke. “These symptoms may be indicative of a more severe brain injury, such as a bleed into the brain.”

“If you think you have sustained a concussion, see your primary healthcare provider as soon as possible for an assessment and diagnosis and to also help rule out any other injuries, such as a neck injury,” adds McLellan. It’s also important to get medical clearance before returning to contact sports or any other activities with a risk of head injury.”

“Seeking medical guidance for concussion early on can help a person best manage certain symptoms, and receive educational and counselling around returning to activity, work or school,” says Dr. Burke.

Recovering after concussion

In the first day or two after concussion it is important to rest your brain (mental rest) and body (physical rest) during the day and get lots of sleep at night. Plan to return to your daily activities gradually and conserve energy.

“Think of your brain like a cellphone battery,” says McLellan. “Just like a battery, everything we do in life uses energy, including stress and worry. After a concussion, a lot more energy is going into healing the brain, so we don’t have a lot of energy left to spare, and it’s also going to be harder to keep the battery fully charged. It’s therefore important to manage your physical and mental energy and give your brain time to heal.”

[READ MORE: Recovering from a concussion: what adults should know]

McLellan recommends taking it slowly rather than rushing back to everyday activities, as going back too quickly may cause symptoms to return or get worse.

Everyone recovers from a concussion differently and symptoms can last several days, weeks or longer. Recovery is different for everyone and depends on the injury itself and many other factors. If your symptoms are not improving, be sure to see your health care provider again. They will give you strategies to increase your activity levels and maximize your recovery.

Ultimately, when it comes to concussions it’s important to watch out for signs and symptoms, and to seek help early on from your health care team.

Learn how to prevent brain injury this summer

About the author

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Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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