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Concussion: everything you need to know

It is the most common form of head injury, but one that can go unseen and untreated if the symptoms are not fully recognised. The dangers of concussion are very much in the public spotlight, with particular concerns raised about the vulnerability of children and teenagers when engaged in sporting activities.

When it comes to concussion, informed awareness rather than fear is required. While it is the most common form of head injury, it is also the most manageable – provided the correct care and attention is given to it.

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a short-term disturbance in brain function due to a head injury. This occurs when a blow or jolt to the head or body causes the brain to shake inside the skull. 

A bang to the head isn’t required – whiplash, for instance, can result in concussion. Medically known as a “minor traumatic brain injury”, a concussion is temporary and reversible by definition. 

Symptoms

Look for these signs when someone has been involved in an accident:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of balance
  • Mental confusion
  • Memory loss (of less than 24 hours)
  • Double vision or seeing flashing lights or “stars”

Less common symptoms include slurred speech, a glassy stare, vomiting, loss of consciousness, irritability and behavioural changes. 

What to do?

Emergency medical treatment should be sought if the person remains unconscious or has difficulty remaining awake. You should also go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department in the case of seizures, bleeding, repeated vomiting, prolonged sight or hearing problems and pronounced cognitive issues. People who have had previous brain operations or are taking blood-thinning medications require a medical check-up. Use common sense and err on the side of caution.

Recovery

If symptoms include a short-lived headache, slight dizziness, gentle nausea or a vaguely dazed feeling, the injury is likely minor and can be treated at home. A period of careful monitoring is required, ranging from several days to weeks depending on the severity of the concussion.

Ensure someone stays with the person for 48 hours. Apply ice packs for short periods to bring down swelling. Use paracetamol for headache relief, but not ibuprofen or aspirin as they may cause bleeding. 

Allow for rest – there is no need to stay awake. Take time off work or school during recovery and avoid contact sports for at least three weeks. Make a gradual return to activity. Driving is not advised. Alcohol and other substances should be avoided. 

It is most important to guard against repeat concussions, which could make the situation more severe and lead to permanent damage. 

Those most at risk

Approximately 1 in 3 of us will sustain a concussion before the age of 21. Indeed, concussion is most common amongst children. That said, a concussion can occur at any age. 

It is more common amongst males, though females are more vulnerable to the effects. However, females generally recover more quickly as they seek medical treatment early. 

Precautionary measures

There is no sure-fire way to prevent a concussion but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of a head injury. 

Seatbelts when driving are a must, as are helmets when cycling. While a helmet won’t prevent a concussion, it does offer important protection from cuts, bruises and fractures.

If you or your child are engaged in a contact sport, ensure it is supervised by a qualified and trained person. Always wear the recommended equipment for the likes of rugby and boxing. Someone suspected of having a head injury should be removed from the field of play immediately, as athletes who continue to play (even briefly) may take twice as long to recover and could sustain more damage.

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