The words “mild” and “traumatic” don’t seem to go together, but that’s exactly how a concussion is usually defined—as a mild form of traumatic brain injury. So it’s easy to see why some people still think of concussions as minor injuries. They’re not.
Concussions, even mild ones, are serious medical conditions that need treatment and monitoring. Concussion damage is all internal, making it hard for athletes, parents and coaches to know the extent of the injury.
Falls are the most common cause of head injuries and make up nearly half of all hospital visits for a head injury. Other common causes include sports injuries, car accidents and being violently shaken.
Learn about the signs and symptoms to watch for, plus a testing system that can help protect young athlete’s brains by spotting damage from head injuries more quickly.
How Concussion Damage Occurs
Concussions occur when any sudden impact jolts the brain, like from a fall or a sports injury. Helmets do protect against more serious head injuries, but they don’t necessarily protect against concussions.
After the initial impact (blue arrows), the brain slams against the inside of the skull then rebounds to the other side (yellow arrows) and may twist.
That’s because a concussion happens when the brain moves inside the skull and that sudden movement causes damage and swelling—often without any outward signs of injury.
Physical Symptoms of Concussion
A concussion is an injury to the brain that can cause a variety of physical symptoms, including:
- Blurry vision
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or vertigo
- Problems with balance or coordination
- Light or noise sensitivity
- Ringing in the ears
Concussions can also cause problems with sleep, including sleeping more or less than usual, having trouble falling asleep or general drowsiness.
Mental & Emotional Symptoms of Concussion
Not all concussion symptoms are physical. The brain also controls your emotions and thought processes and damage can cause a variety of mental and/or emotional symptoms:
- Feeling mentally “sluggish”
- Trouble thinking or concentrating
- Memory issues
- Unusual or persistent sadness
- Feeling anxious or nervous
- Overly emotional
- Sudden mood swings
- Feelings of “not being right”
- Lack of awareness of surroundings
Baseline Testing & Concussion Management
There is no specific test that can diagnose a concussion. Rather, it is a series of neurological exams including a physical exam and tests to measure things like balance and agility.
The best way to diagnose a concussion is to compare the patient’s current status with their status prior to injury (a baseline). Of course, that only works if people have the testing before they are injured. A baseline test basically involves having the same physical exams and tests you would need if a concussion is suspected before there is any injury. Doctors can then compare the baseline results to how you respond after an injury to see if there are any changes.
That’s why the HCA Midwest Health Sports Medicine program partners with local school and community athletic groups to offer ImPACT™ Baseline Concussion Testing. This ensures that all athletes who take part have a record of their baseline so whether a head injury happens on or off the field, doctors can spot warning signs right away and treatment can begin.
Baseline testing for children is usually recommended every two years since results will change as kids grow and mature. HCA Midwest Health has community programs that offer baseline testing. You can also make an appointment for test at Overland Park Regional Medical Center by calling (913) 541-3365.
The ImPACT baseline test takes about 45 minutes and children ages 5 and up are eligible for testing.
“Red Flag” Symptoms To Remember
Concussions can occur even if there is no bleeding or other outward sign of injury. Symptoms may start mild and then become more pronounced.
Remember the following “red flag” signs of concussion and call 9-1-1 or visit the emergency room after even a seemingly small bump to the head:
- Increasing confusion
- Worsening headache
- Double vision or other vision problems
- Unequal size pupils (the black area at the center of the eye)
- Unusual irritability
- Behavior changes
- Drowsiness or going in and out of consciousness
- Seizures or convulsions
- Weakness, paralysis or numbness
- Slurred speech
- Slow or shallow breathing
- Neck pain or stiffness
- Any external head bruising or bleeding
- Bleeding or clear fluid from the eyes, nose or mouth
You should also seek immediate medical attention anytime there’s a loss of consciousness after a head injury.