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How to recognize the symptoms of a concussion

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Concussion symptoms can be different for everyone. It’s important to recognize any of the possible symptoms of a concussion so that a health-care provider can diagnose it and start you on a recovery plan.

A concussion can be a serious injury, but many people do not recognize them when they happen.

Health-care experts from The Ottawa Hospital explain the symptoms of concussion, what to do if you think you have a concussion, and what to expect during the recovery process.

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that can affect how your brain works. Symptoms of a concussion can include a headache, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, sensitivity to light, and loss of balance or coordination (see the concussion symptoms list below for more information).

A concussion can happen whenever your brain moves within your skull. Something as ordinary as a fall or when your head suddenly accelerates or decelerates, like what might happen in a car crash, can cause your brain to move within your skull.

“Concussions often happen so quickly that the injured person doesn’t know they have one, nor do the people around them,” says Dr. Shawn Marshall, Medical Director of the Acquired Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre.

Don’t ignore any new signs or symptoms you feel after an event that involves your head.

What are concussion symptoms?

Women are playing field hockey

Symptoms of a concussion can include:

  • Headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Confusion
  • Amnesia
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability or mood swings
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Changes in taste or smell

What should you do when you think you have a concussion?

If you suspect that you, or someone you know, may have sustained a concussion, contact your family doctor or a health-care provider right away. Concussions should be diagnosed by trained health-care professionals. They are your best resource for treatment going forward.

What should you do when recovering from a concussion?

Everyone recovers from a concussion differently. Some symptoms may last only for a few days or a couple of weeks, while others can continue for much longer, especially if you don’t give yourself enough time to recover. All concussion patients should be monitored by a health-care provider. The best thing you can contribute to your recovery is patience.

Here are the top recommendations to help recover from a concussion

  • Try to rest and do only light activities for the first 24 to 48 hours.
  • Start to gradually increase your cognitive and physical activity without making your symptoms significantly worse.
  • Do not drink alcohol or take drugs that are not prescribed by your health-care provider.

Consult regularly with your health-care provider and follow their instructions.

What if your symptoms persist?

In some cases, patients can experience “prolonged” symptoms of a concussion, which are symptoms that last beyond a month. Prolonged concussion symptoms can be more challenging to manage because patients can become frustrated with their recovery and eager to return to their activities.

The best way to manage prolonged concussion symptoms is to speak to your health-care provider about them.  They will help you find assessments and treatments that are available to you.

What are the new concussion guidelines?

The latest concussion guideline provides evidence-based recommendations to health-care providers on how to diagnose a concussion and manage prolonged symptoms in adults.

As the science of concussions continues to evolve, so do the guidelines on what to do.  The current guideline is called a “living” guideline because it is informed by the best-available evidence and will be updated as new evidence becomes available.  Experts review the guideline at least every six months.

This guideline is supported by the Ontario Ministry of Health, the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute.

Men are playing Hockey game

“Each patient experiences a concussion differently,” says Dr. Marshall. “Sometimes, patients may not recover at the expected rate. It can often be frustrating for the patient and those around them. These guidelines will help health-care providers navigate their patients through recovery and help them manage their symptoms and expectations.”

A patient-friendly version of the guideline will be available online by early 2024. It can also be printed out.

In addition to presenting information in a format that the public will find easy to understand, the patient guideline version will also fill an information gap around prolonged concussion symptoms and how to manage them.

“Through my own online research, and discussion with others who have suffered concussions, I realized that most websites tend to focus on the initial stages of a concussion,” says Natalia Rybczynski, a patient who suffered a concussion in 2011. “There was very little information out there for patients regarding what to expect with persisting symptoms, which was frustrating. Now we have more information that validates what we are going through, with strategies and tools for tracking and managing our symptoms right at our fingertips.”

Patients aren’t the only ones who benefit from these guidelines. Their caretakers do, too.

“When dealing with a concussion, some patients may have difficulty putting together their thoughts, taking notes and remembering information from their appointment with their doctor,” says Natalia. “It can also be hard to convey our challenges to others. Family and friends can be left feeling uncertain how best to support someone with persisting symptoms. I think these guidelines provide practical direction and insights that could make the recovery process easier to manage for everyone involved.”

Proper diagnosis of, and recovery from, a concussion is an important part of keeping yourself healthy over time. Remember that any brain injury is serious and needs to be treated that way.

If you think you may have sustained a concussion, go to your nearest emergency room, or book an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. It is your first step on the road to recovery.

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This website gives you common facts, advice and tips. Some of it may not apply to you. Please talk to your doctor, nurse or other health-care team member to see if this information will work for you. They can also answer your questions and concerns.