Diagnosis of concussions
At Dignity Health, a doctor will assess your physical symptoms, paying close attention to your nervous system (including your reflexes, coordination, and pupil size). Your memory and ability to recall information will also be checked. Imaging tests, including a CT scan (a standard test for concussions) and an MRI, will help your doctor make a diagnosis as well.
We treat concussion in our Dignity Health hospitals and outpatient surgery centers. Your doctor will likely recommend rest (both physical and mental) to see if your symptoms clear up. Resting involves avoiding any activities that require thinking and concentration, including reading, watching TV, and using your computer or smartphone.
Over-the-counter pain relievers may be recommended to ease discomfort and inflammation. Ask your doctor before taking aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve).
Talk to your doctor about when it is safe to return to normal activities or sports.
The timing of your recovery will depend on the severity of your head injury.
Most concussions result in temporary symptoms that go away within a few weeks, as the brain heals from the impact. In some cases, your doctor may recommend therapy or medication to help you heal and return to normal activities.
A minimal number of people have persistent symptoms such as headaches, concentration or reading difficulties, or mood and brain function changes that persist for longer than three weeks. After three months, these symptoms are classified as “post-concussion syndrome” and may require further treatment.
Research is also ongoing regarding the long-term effects of multiple small head injuries. For example, many athletes, such as football players, sustain numerous head injuries that do not cause any symptoms. It is still unclear whether these injuries cause damage over time.
When to seek emergency care for a head injury
While some minor head injuries do not require emergency care, a severe head injury is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. If you or someone close to you experiences any of these symptoms after a head injury, call 911:
- Any loss of consciousness
- Seizures or convulsions
- Blurry vision or difficulty focusing eyes
- Changes in pupil size or shape; pupils of different sizes
- Problems talking or understanding speech
- Loss of coordination or balance; difficulty walking
- Vomiting more than once
- Sudden drowsiness
- Severe headache or stiff neck
- Behavioral changes
- Bleeding or discharge from the nose or ears
- Discoloration or bruising around the eyes
- Any sign of skull fracture or severe head wound
Even if these symptoms are not immediately apparent, they may occur after some time. If you or someone close to you has experienced a severe head injury, monitor the injury closely for any changes, and ask your doctor for advice. Children cannot always communicate their symptoms, and should always be monitored for at least 24 hours following a head injury even if no immediate signs are present.
If you suspect a severe head injury, do NOT engage in any of the following behaviors:
- Returning to a game or activity where the injury was sustained; in rare cases, a second impact can multiply the effects of the concussion and cause fatal brain swelling
- Drinking alcohol for at least 48 hours
- Washing a severe wound or removing any object in a head wound
- Removing a helmet
- Moving, unless necessary; lifting or shaking someone with a head injury
- Giving or taking any potentially blood-thinning medications such as aspirin, without consulting a physician
Dignity Health offers complete treatment for concussion as part of our orthopedic services.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.