Concussions: More than just a bump on the head

Adam Kosloff

What seems like a minor bump on the head can quickly become a serious -- or even deadly -- matter if you've sustained a concussion. What exactly is a concussion? And how can you recognize one before it's too late?

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a brain injury caused or worsened by a physical blow to the head. It falls under the category of "traumatic brain injuries." The jolt or blow exerts a rapid force on the brain, shaking it or jarring it inside the skull. This trauma can cause damage ranging from bruising, to inflammation, to swelling of the brain (edema), to bleeding inside the brain.

Concussions make up about two-thirds of all traumatic brain injuries, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those who play sports are particularly at risk, as well as children. In fact, children account for 90 percent of emergency room visits for sports-related concussions, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The majority of victims bounce back within a few hours. But others are hospitalized, and some even die if, for example, the concussion causes brain bleeding that goes unnoticed and untreated. What's most dangerous about concussions is that they often cause no noticeable symptoms. Fortunately, however, many concussions do present warning signs.

Signs and symptoms of concussions

If you see someone take a blow to the head, watch that person carefully. If he or she exhibits any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention, according to the CDC:

  • Victim seems stunned, dazed or confused.
  • Victim can't understand instructions or questions.
  • Victim has a problem moving or talking. He or she is more clumsy than usual.
  • Victim blacks out or temporarily loses consciousness. About 12 percent of concussion victims lose consciousness, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Victim shows changes in personality or behavior.
  • Victim has amnesia about events before or after the hit, fall or jolt.

If you've been hit in the head, seek medical attention if you experience any of the following:

  • A feeling of pressure in your head.
  • Vomiting.
  • Falling over or lack of balance.
  • Blurry vision.
  • Sensitivity to light or noise.
  • Sluggishness, depression or grogginess.
  • An inability to concentrate.

What should you do?

If you or someone else exhibits any of the signs of concussion described above, immediately consult a doctor or head to the emergency room. In the majority of concussions, the brain heals relatively well by itself, but it's difficult to measure the severity of a concussion without a thorough medical evaluation.