11 concussion signs and symptoms and where to seek help

woman holding head after car crash

Neuropsychologist Kate Higgins, PsyD, ABPP-CN and athletic trainer Rusty McKune, ATC, treat concussions regularly. Here they share what to watch for and when to get help.

"A concussion is the same as a mild TBI, which stands for traumatic brain injury," says Dr. Higgins. TBIs vary in severity. "In a severe TBI, we would absolutely expect to see long-term cognitive changes. But for a mild TBI or concussion, most people recover well if they get good care after a concussion."

11 concussion symptoms to watch for

"The onset of concussion symptoms can be immediate or delayed. Each person will experience the onset, duration and severity differently," says McKune.

What the person feels:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sensitivity to light/noise
  • Not feeling right or in a fog
  • Memory loss right around when the impact happened

Signs of a concussion others may observe include:

  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of coordination
  • Looking dazed or stunned
  • Behavior and mood changes

"You can also get a concussion from a whiplash injury," says Dr. Higgins. "Neck pain can be a source of headaches." 

Where to go when a concussion is serious

Concussions are best managed by those who are trained in managing concussions. Most do not require a trip to the emergency room. However, if any of the following red flags are seen, experienced or reported, go to the ER as they could be signs of a more serious injury. 

Red flags that indicate a more serious injury:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Headache that persists or gets worse
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Numbness or weakness in arms/legs
  • Unusual behavior
  • Inability to recognize people or places
  • Inability to be awakened
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Will concussions show up on MRI or CT scan? No

"A brain with a concussion almost always looks perfectly fine on MRI and CT – the most common types of brain imaging.," explains Dr. Higgins. 

How a concussion affects the brain

"Concussions change the efficiency of the brain's communication," says Dr. Higgins. "A concussion causes very tiny changes, on the level of the neurons, that affects how the brain communicates."

It's almost like road construction in your brain. You can still get from point A to point B, but it'll take longer and take a bit more effort.

Prevent concussion symptoms from getting worse

Sustaining a second concussion tends to have more severe symptoms and takes longer to heal.

"We don't want you to hit your head again while you recover," says Dr. Higgins. "Ride a stationary bike or walk on a treadmill to get light exercise. A little physical activity will help you heal."

"It's important to avoid putting yourself in positions that would predispose you to sustaining another concussion before the first one has healed," says McKune. "Also, report your symptoms to your provider. This includes changes in symptoms and increases in symptoms that you're already experiencing."

Will a concussion heal itself? Yes

"The brain is really good at healing itself after a concussion," says Dr. Higgins. "Research gives us different answers, but a rough estimate is that takes somewhere between two and four weeks to recover. Kids take a little longer to heal from a concussion."

It's important to get back into your normal life as quickly as you can. "You may need to reduce the amount of cognitive work in school or your job. Getting back to your routine gives you a purpose and adds good structure to your day," explains Dr. Higgins.  

"Sleep really helps the brain heal. If you're experiencing disruptions to your sleep, let your doctor know," says Dr. Higgins. "Also report if you're feeling any symptoms of anxiety or depression."

"People experience concussion and the recovery from concussion in different ways. There is no magic recipe for what can be done to help with recovery," says McKune. "However, if they protect themselves, communicate what they are experiencing and follow the recommendations of their health care provider they are doing things that can help with the recovery process."

How to help your brain heal:

  1. Light exercise, without putting yourself at risk of another hit to the head
  2. Get enough sleep, which is critical to the healing process
  3. Occupational therapy and physical therapy to retrain systems in the brain