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How to recognize the symptoms of a concussion

A football player is running in the ground

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.

Concussions are a serious and often-misunderstood injury. Recent high-profile stories about athletes taking extended breaks from their careers to recover from concussions have helped to start a public discussion about how serious a concussion can be, and how to recognize the symptoms, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Health-care experts from The Ottawa Hospital explained 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 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 section below for more information).

A concussion can happen whenever your brain Fmoves within your skull.  That means a concussion can be caused by a blow to the head, or by shaking the head too hard, like what happens during whiplash. Sometimes the initial impact causes unconsciousness and sometimes it doesn’t.

“Sustaining a concussion is not always as obvious as hitting your head and getting a headache or losing consciousness,” said Dr. Shawn Marshall, Medical Director of the Acquired Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre. “You may fall down awkwardly, or shake your head too hard for any reason, and begin to feel a little off. When playing a contact sport, for example, patients could sustain a concussion from a hit to the head, or a hit to the stomach. It all depends on the movement of the brain inside the skull.”

Since something as ordinary as a fall or sudden movement can cause your brain to move within your skull, you may sustain a concussion and not realize it. 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 week to ten days, 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

  • Get lots of rest. Your brain needs lots of rest to heal itself, and this can take time. Take time off work, school or other activities. Wait for your symptoms to reduce dramatically. Consult with your health-care provider before returning to your normal activities.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Avoid physically or mentally stimulating activities.
  • Do not drink alcohol or take drugs that are not prescribed by your health-care provider.
  • Avoid looking at screens (computer, phone, tablet, etc.).
  • Consult regularly with your health-care provider and follow their instructions.

What if your symptoms persist?

In some cases, patients can experience symptoms of a concussion beyond a few days or weeks. Persistent concussion symptoms can be more challenging to manage because patients can become frustrated with their recovery and eager to return to their activities.

To address these challenges, the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation (ONF) focused on persistent concussion symptoms in the most recent edition of its concussion guidelines.

What are the new concussion guidelines?

Men are playing Hockey game

Updated concussion guidelines that were recently released by the ONF can help adult patients manage their symptoms and navigate their way through their treatment recommended by their health-care provider.

For the first time, these guidelines feature a patient-friendly version, which makes it easier for patients and their families to understand the symptoms and treatment of a concussion, especially if recovery is not going as planned.

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

The ONF has also made it easier for patients with concussion symptoms to access the resource. Now patients can view the guidelines in different font sizes, print them, or have the guidelines read to them through their device, avoiding the need to look at a screen.

In addition to presenting information in a user-friendly way, the latest guidelines also fill an information gap around persistent concussion symptoms.

“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,” said 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.”

Symptoms of a concussion

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,” said Rybczynski. “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 very 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 immediate appointment with your doctor. 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.