Concussion signs and symptoms

Brain Health

by Erin Reynolds, PsyD

Jun 30, 2020

With up to 3.8 million sports-related concussions occurring each year, it is possible that you or someone in your family will at some point sustain a concussion. And athletes aren’t the only ones susceptible to a concussion—it can happen to anyone.

While concussions are serious injuries, with the right information and action plan, you can not only recover but in most cases, athletes can return to sports safely and quickly. Research suggests that athletes staying in play for less than 15 minutes following concussion may have recovery times that are twice as long that athletes who are immediately taken out of play. 

Understanding the signs and symptoms of concussion will enable you to take swift action—which can improve recovery time and lessen severity of symptoms. 

What is a concussion?

A concussion occurs when the brain shakes inside the skull due to direct force, such as being hit in the head, or indirect force, such as being struck in the body hard enough that the force travels to the brain. When the brain shakes hard enough, it triggers a chemical reaction leading to metabolic dysfunction.

In other words, the brain cells stretch out enough that the cell membrane protecting the cell becomes too thin and brain chemicals are then transmitted across the membrane, causing toxicity and dysregulation. The brain immediately kicks into repair mode, or healing mode, and the recovery process starts. 

The time of impact is a critical moment. Armed with the appropriate information, athletes, parents and coaches can make time sensitive decisions regarding immediate removal from play. 

How to recognize a concussion

When trying to determine if a concussion has occurred, there are a number of signs and symptoms to look for. Signs of concussion are typically observed, while symptoms of concussion are typically reported. 

Not everyone will experience all signs and symptoms of concussion—some may only experience one or two while others may experience all or most of them. 

Signs that a concussion has occurred include:

  • Appearing dazed or stunned
  • Moving clumsily 
  • Losing balance
  • Losing consciousness (even briefly)
  • Vomiting

It is important to note that loss of consciousness occurs in less than 10 percent of all sports-related concussions. Other signs may require some basic assessment rather than pure observation, typically in the form of asking some questions.

As you ask questions, take note of the following:

  • Any inability to recall events prior to or after a hit
  • Forgetting instructions
  • Being unable to recall the score or opponent of the game
  • Speaking slower than usual
  • Behavioral or mood changes, including emotional outbursts

While some of these signs are more obvious than others, all are indications that a neurologic injury has occurred and should be taken seriously. 

Symptoms of a concussion

Symptoms of concussion are typically considered in four groups: physical, cognitive, sleep and mood-related symptoms. 

Physical symptoms

Physical symptoms of concussion may include:

  • Headache, sometimes feeling more like “pressure” than pain
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance problems
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Sensitivity to light and/or noise
  • Feeling foggy, typically defined as feeling detached or one step behind one’s self 

Cognitive symptoms

These cognitive symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty remembering information or learning new information
  • Feeling mentally slowed down 

Sleep-related symptoms

Sleep-related symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Feeling drowsy or tired throughout the day

Mood-related symptoms

Symptoms related to mood may include:

  • Irritability
  • Feelings of sadness or excessive worry
  • Feeling more emotional than usual or feeling more subdued 

It is important to note that every concussion is different. As stated above, someone may not experience all of these signs and symptoms. Some people have as few as one or two. 

If you’ve had a concussion in the past, a new concussion may look and feel entirely different, so a proper evaluation should be administered if any signs or symptoms occur. 

Educating everyone—especially parents, coaches and athletes—on the signs and symptoms of concussion, as well as the importance of immediate removal from play, improves the chances for a safe and swift recovery. 

What to do if you think you have a concussion

Dealing with severe concussion symptoms? Don’t hesitate to call 911 if you think it’s an emergency, as untreated concussions can be dangerous.

If you’re experiencing mild concussion symptoms or mild lingering concussion symptoms, find a concussion specialist who can help. A virtual concussion visit can get you connected with expert care from the comfort and safety of home.

About the Author

Erin Reynolds, PsyD, is a clinical sports neuropsychologist and director of the Baylor Scott & White Sports Concussion Program at The Star. She specializes in the treatment of sports-related concussions. As the mother of two student-athletes, Dr. Reynolds is passionate about the benefits of playing team sports in childhood and adolescence. Get to know Dr. Reynolds today.

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