Perhaps you have grown up hearing that a concussion is a bruise to the brain. Or, maybe after a hit to the head, you have been told: “You’ll be fine — you just got your bell rung.”
While these are common beliefs, they are inaccurate. First, bruising suggests bleeding, and a concussed brain does not bleed. In fact, images of a concussed brain may look normal as concussions generally do not show up on MRI or CT scans.
This is because a concussion is an injury that disrupts the normal functioning of the brain. In other words, it can temporarily change how the brain works but does not change the appearance of the brain. These changes, which can show up symptomatically throughout the entire body, may affect mood, cause blurry or double vision, produce balance problems, create increased sensitivity to light and sound, and be the root of behavior changes.
Since brain injuries are not visible to the eye, someone with a concussion may “look” normal and may be accused of “faking it” or be directed to “just walk it off.” But a concussion can be a very serious injury, identified mainly by concussion symptoms that you cannot just “walk off.” It is important to have an awareness of the many indicators of concussion.
Many people have difficulty identifying concussion symptoms because indicators may not appear for hours, days, or even weeks after the initial hit to the head or blow to the body. It is therefore important to be aware of the large variety of symptoms that may result from a concussion.
Symptoms of a concussion generally affect four areas: thinking and remembering; your physical body; mood and emotions; and sleep. If you are suffering from a concussion, you may find your thoughts are fuzzy or you don’t feel quite right. Or you may find you have trouble concentrating, thinking, studying or remembering. You may physically have trouble balancing or have blurred or double vision. You may experience headaches, nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue or loss of energy. Your emotions and mood may be different. You may feel irritable, sad, depressed or more anxious than usual. You may find you are sleeping more than usual, less than usual or have difficulty falling asleep. However, it is important to understand that you need only one of these symptoms to indicate a concussion.
It is important to keep in mind that recovery typically means someone has lost certain abilities temporarily and will regain them. For a person with a brain injury — even an injury as common as a concussion — although he or she may look the same, the changes to the brain may be long-lasting and adjustment is an ongoing process. Often, concussion recovery in young children and teens can take longer than usual. Symptoms can last for days, weeks or longer. Sometimes, recovering from a concussion may take months or years. And, some people may never fully recover from a concussion. The good news is that most people recover quickly and fully from concussions. Generally, recovery includes getting plenty of rest, avoiding physical activity and limiting school work. In some cases, special eye therapies, occupational therapy or balance exercises may be necessary to expedite recovery.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Oregon Concussion Awareness and Management Program each have helpful information about concussions and healing from them afterwards.
Kayt Zundel, MPA, MS
OHSU ThinkFirst Oregon
Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Prevention