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Be Nice to Your Brain: Concussion Awareness and Prevention

When is a bump on the head more than just a bump on the head? Head injuries are very common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were more than 223,000 hospitalizations related to traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in 2019. But a forceful knock to the noggin can cause a concussion. Even though they’re not typically life-threatening, they should be taken seriously to avoid more severe effects.

What Happens to Your Brain During a Concussion

Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury that results from a severe blow to the head, most commonly after an accident, fall, or during a contact sport like football.

“When someone suffers a concussion, the brain can literally bump against the inside of the skull, potentially tearing blood vessels and causing bleeding or damage to the brain itself,” says Sarah Menacho, MD, a neurosurgeon at University of Utah Health.

Spotting the Symptoms

Symptoms of a concussion might appear immediately, but it’s also possible that they may not show up until days or weeks later.

Key physical symptoms include:

  • Headache or dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Blurred vision
  • Balance problems
  • Confusion
  • Amnesia surrounding the injury

Symptoms that are more likely to show up a few days later include:

  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Feeling groggy or irritable
  • Sensitivity to noise or light
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Depression
  • Differences in your senses of taste and smell

Some People Are More at Risk Than Others

No one is totally risk-free from accidents or injuries. But certain groups have higher rates of concussions, including:

  • Males between the ages of 15-24: Young males are more likely to engage in risky behavior or play contact sports.
  • Children younger than 4: Toddlers and infants are more accident-prone and, unfortunately, more susceptible to child abuse.
  • Adults older than 60: Older adults tend to be more unsteady on their feet due to age-related health issues like arthritis, muscle weakness, or vision problems.

When to See a Doctor After Hitting Your Head

You should seek medical care if you’ve recently experienced a head injury and have any of the above symptoms, regardless of if you’re in one of the risk groups.

“I would recommend seeing a doctor within one to two days following a head injury, even if you don’t require emergency treatment,” Menacho says.

It may be harder to determine if a toddler or infant has a concussion, as they cannot always verbalize what they’re feeling. If you think a young child might have a concussion after a head injury, look for the following signs:

  • Lethargy or sleeping more than usual
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Inconsolable crying or fussiness
  • Balance difficulties

For older adults, falls and car crashes are the two most common causes of head injuries. If you are over 60 and have fallen or been in an auto accident, it’s important to see a doctor, especially if you are on blood thinners. These medications are more likely to cause bleeding in the brain after an injury, which can cause longer recovery time or even death.

Prevention Is Key

While we can’t totally erase all accidents, we can take steps to try to prevent them and lessen the risk of a concussion:

  • Wear a seatbelt. Always wear your seatbelt when driving or riding in a car to prevent TBIs and other serious injuries. For children, make sure their car seat is installed correctly and your child is strapped in properly.
  • Use protective gear. Adults and children alike should wear helmets and protective gear when engaging in sports and other activities where falling or rough contact is common (i.e. riding bikes or scooters, skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing). In sports that require helmets, such as football or ice hockey, make sure your helmet fits and is being worn correctly.
  • Make your home safe. This is especially important for older adults and young children. Remove tripping hazards such as throw rugs and clutter. Block off stairways with a baby gate to prevent a child from tumbling down the steps. Install a bar in bathrooms to help older adults balance when bathing or using the toilet.
  • Stay active. Regular exercise can help improve your balance and keep your leg muscles strong.
  • Take care of your eyes. Periodic vision checks, especially for older adults, can help you see your best and prevent falls due to vision problems.

Rest to Recover

Fortunately, long-term effects from one concussion are rare, and most people will feel better within a couple of weeks. Get plenty of rest while you have symptoms, and gradually return to activity when symptoms are gone. Once you’re back to normal activities, be sure to incorporate prevention strategies to avoid another head injury.

“The more concussions you get, the more likely you are to suffer long-term consequences, especially if you don’t give your brain enough time to heal between injuries,” Menacho says.

Prevention strategies and taking it easy if you do hit your head are the keys to keeping your brain happy and healthy.