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Signs of a Concussion: Physical, Cognitive, and Emotional

By Julia Haskins August 21, 2015 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

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If you've experienced head trauma, it's crucial to pay attention to any changes in your body or behavior. Even if you don't think your injury is serious, you could be suffering from a concussion and not even know it -- the signs of a concussion may not look like what you would expect. For one thing, concussions aren't always followed by amnesia, a popular misconception. Also, the effects can be more emotional than physical.

It sometimes takes astute observation to detect this brain injury, so you need to recognize the signs in order to receive appropriate, immediate medical attention and prevent further damage.

What Does a Concussion Look Like?

Concussions can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms vary from person to person, and the signs of a brain injury may be subtle. The images of concussion depicted in movies and TV are generally inaccurate and shouldn't be used to evaluate the severity of head trauma.

"The most common myth is that a concussion results in a loss of consciousness," says Dr. Javier Cárdenas, medical director of the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center. "In fact, less than 10 percent of concussions result in a loss of consciousness."

Concussions present themselves in a number of ways. The symptoms may be physical, such as:

  • Dizziness.
  • Headache.
  • Fatigue.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.

You may experience cognitive symptoms, such as:

  • Acting dazed or sluggish.
  • Blurred or double vision.
  • Difficulty maintaining balance.
  • Sensitivity to light or noise.
  • Trouble concentrating, following directions or conversations, and remembering.

There are also emotional and psychological signs, which can be trickier to connect to a concussion diagnosis because they're less noticeable than a physical ailment. But take note of even a slight change in personality after an injury -- it could point to something more serious.

"This can be disturbing to families, as an injured child may exhibit uncharacteristic behaviors," Dr. Cárdenas says. "Some of the cognitive deficits may be subtle and only present in a classroom setting."

Such emotional symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Mood changes.
  • Sadness.

Dr. Cárdenas also notes that some symptoms could develop at a later time, so it's important to be vigilant about checking for signs of a concussion for a while after the incident. According to Dr. Cárdenas, symptoms that pop up instantaneously is yet another myth.

"While some symptoms may be present right after an injury, many times the symptoms show up in the following hours and sometimes days," he says.

When to Seek Medical Assistance

If you've experienced any of the symptoms noted above, see your doctor right away.

"Head trauma that results in a concussion or other brain injury should be reported to a medical professional," Dr. Cárdenas says. "While all bumps to the head may not result in a concussion, those which do should be seen."

Even if your injury is slight, don't hesitate to seek out a professional medical diagnosis. It doesn't take much to induce a concussion.

"In most studies, the average force is 98 Gs -- the force of a car accident," Dr. Cárdenas says. "However, concussions can occur at much lower forces, and some athletes can sustain greater forces. It's most important to evaluate every hit to the head, regardless of the force."


You can prevent a concussion by practicing safe physical activity and being properly equipped.

"The best defense against concussion is safe play," Dr. Cárdenas says. "Not putting your head into a tackle or sacrificing yourself for a play is most helpful. Additionally, properly fitting equipment, such as helmets, reduces concussions and other head injuries."

There are tools you can use that are specifically designed to educate on concussion prevention and detection. For example, Dr. Cárdenas is the creator of the Barrow Brainbook, an educational guide for high school athletes that covers signs of a concussion, as well as prevention and recovery. Dr. Cárdenas also recommends the Sway Balance app, which complements the ImPACT cognitive test. This computerized test is used to detect concussions when evaluating baseline and post-injury measurements.

Sometimes we neglect to get the care we need out of fear of appearing too needy or melodramatic. But every bump or bruise to the head warrants medical attention, and you never have to feel embarrassed about taking control of your health. When it comes to concussions, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

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