man holding ice to his head at home

Concussions and brain injuries happen frequently in athletes who play contact sports. But it’s important to note that they can happen to anyone who falls or takes a blow to the head, such as in a car crash.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there were more than 214,000 hospitalizations related to traumatic brain injury (TBI) in 2020. This statistic doesn’t account for any injuries in which the patient didn’t go to the hospital.

Returning to physical activity too soon after a concussion increases the risk of serious injury or death because it doesn’t allow the injury to heal. Research shows that athletes who continue to play with concussion symptoms are 6 times more likely to have a longer recovery. For this reason, it’s important to spot concussions early.

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a mild injury to the brain that disrupts how the brain normally works. Usually, it’s caused by a sudden blow or impact to the head. You do not have to be knocked out or lose consciousness to have a concussion.

Another term for concussion is mild traumatic brain injury (mild TBI). Even though a concussion might be called a “mild” injury, it should be taken seriously.

Learn about the CDC’s HEADS UP to brain injury awareness for children and teens

What is traumatic brain injury (TBI)?

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can be mild, moderate, or severe. TBIs can be caused by a hit to the head or a jolt that causes the head and brain to move quickly back and forth. This sudden movement can cause the brain to bounce in the skull, can damage brain cells, and can change the chemicals in the brain.

Traumatic brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability in children and young adults, according to the National Institutes of Health. It’s also a significant concern for older people due to an increased chance of slips and falls. Proper diagnosis and treatment are essential to a quick recovery after a serious brain injury.

Get the facts about TBI from the CDC

Signs of a concussion

A few signs to look for soon after a suspected concussion include:

  • Blurred or double vision
  • Eye strain
  • Light sensitivity
  • Unusually sized pupils
  • Eye movement
  • Trouble focusing
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness

If you or someone you know has any of these concussion symptoms, they should not return to any physical activity.

View a full list of concussion and TBI symptoms

How to detect a concussion or brain injury

If you suspect someone has a brain injury, the symptoms listed above are usually good ways to detect a concussion. You can also ask the person easy questions like their name, where they are, etc. to determine if they have any memory loss. The person may not want to admit that they are having trouble thinking or remembering. Be sure to take all precautions and encourage them to rest.

In sports, athletic trainers and physicians sometimes detect brain injury in players by having them take balance and cognitive tests before their sport season. Then the player will take the same tests at the time of injury. If the player performs poorly compared to their baseline test, then a concussion is suspected.

Learn more about responding to a concussion

When to get medical help for a concussion or traumatic brain injury

It’s important to seek medical attention immediately after a concussion if you or someone you know has these symptoms:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Headache that’s getting worse, lasts for a long time, or is severe
  • Confusion
  • Extreme sleepiness or trouble waking up
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness, numbness, or trouble walking or talking
  • Seizure or convulsion (where the arms and legs shake uncontrollably)
  • Any other sudden change in thinking or behavior

If you or someone you know has concussion symptoms that last more than two weeks, consider seeing a doctor. These can include more serious symptoms of concussion or TBI, such as:

  • Ongoing headaches
  • Vertigo
  • Dizziness
  • Balance problems
  • Problems communicating
  • Irritability or seeming grouchy
  • Easily confused and trouble paying attention

How long do concussion symptoms typically last?

It’s important to keep an eye on concussion or TBI symptoms for the first day or two after injury. Most people recover completely from a simple concussion in a week or two. However, some people may take longer. There are varying levels of concussions from mild to serious, so each situation can be different.

Concussion recovery

After suffering a blow to the head, it’s important to rest for several days. Doing too much after a concussion may worsen the problem. This should include taking a break from most physical activity and sports. It’s also critical that the head is protected during healing. A second head injury can cause things to become more serious.

View the CDC’s guidelines for recovery from concussion for athletes

Get help for concussions and traumatic brain injuries from UC Davis Health

UC Davis Health has a Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic (TBI Clinic) in Sacramento. Our specialists can help you with TBI diagnosis and management. They can also address complications of TBI, including post-concussion syndrome, headaches, vertigo, balance problems, and more. The clinic is open on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, please call 916-734-4300.

Read more: Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic provides care to improve quality of life