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Concussion Basics

A concussion is a brain injury that changes the way the brain works. It is often caused by a direct hit to the head, face, or neck. A sudden jolt to the body or a hard fall to the ground can also send enough force to the head to cause a concussion.

Nearly four million athletes and active people suffer a concussion every year.  Because all concussions are potentially serious, it is important to recognize and properly treat them early.

This information is for you if you want to learn more about concussions, including knowing the signs and symptoms, and what to do when you recognize one.

What does a concussion look and feel like?

The immediate symptoms and signs of a concussion can include one or more of the following:

Common signs and symptoms of a concussion
Signs (what an observer can see)

  • Appears dazed or stunned (such as glassy eyes)
  • Vomiting
  • Confused about assignment or playing position
  • Forgets an instruction or play
  • Is unsure of score or opponent
  • Moves clumsily or has poor balance
  • Answers questions slowly
  • Loses consciousness (blackout), even briefly
  • Shows mood, behavior or personality changes
  • Cannot recall events prior to hit or fall
  • Cannot recall events after hit or fall

Symptoms (what an athlete feels)

  • Headache or “pressure” in the head
  • Nausea
  • Balance problems or dizziness
  • Blurry or double vision
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Fatigue/ drowsy or difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Confusion
  • Feeling “slow,” hazy, foggy or groggy
  • Not “feeling right” or “feeling down”

[Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]

Diagnosing a concussion is challenging. Not all athletes have the same symptoms. Occasionally, an athlete loses consciousness or “blacks out”. But almost always the athlete remains awake.

Sideline aids such as the Concussion Recognition Tool 5 can help coaches, parents and players identify possible concussions during practices and competitions. Athletes who appear to have a concussion should be removed from play immediately and see a licensed healthcare professional as soon as possible.

“If you know the athlete, and the athlete seems different after a blow to the body or the head—if there is a change in the athlete’s physical well-being, thinking, balance or emotion—then you need to think that this could be a concussion,” says Dr. Stanley A. Herring, clinical professor and cofounder of The Sports Institute at UW Medicine.

The signs and symptoms of a concussion may appear hours after the injury or worsen over the course of hours and days. Removing an athlete from play provides a safe period to see if delayed symptoms develop. Err on the side of caution, say experts: “When in doubt, sit them out.”

Beware worsening symptoms

The headaches, dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, poor concentration and other problems caused by a concussion can be debilitating. Nevertheless, they usually improve with time. Worsening symptoms are a cause for concern.

Concussion injury advice for parents and caregivers
After a licensed healthcare provider has carefully examined the athlete and found no sign of serious complications from head injury, an adult should monitor the athlete for the next 24 hours. (To do this, it is not necessary to wake the athlete from sleep.)

If a parent or caregiver notices new or worsening symptoms, including any change in behavior, a confused or dazed quality that does not improve, repeated vomiting, worsening headache, double vision or excessive drowsiness, she should call an ambulance to transport the athlete to the hospital immediately.

Other important points:

  • Following concussion, your child should rest for at least 24 hours.
  • Your child should not use a computer or the internet or play video games if these activities make symptoms worse.
  • Your child should not take any medications, including pain relievers, unless prescribed by a medical professional.
  • Your child should not go back to school until symptoms are improving.
  • Your child should not go back to sport or play until a doctor gives permission.

Source: Child-SCAT5 Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (for children five to 12 years old). Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport, Berlin 2018