Fact Sheet: Concussions

Find out what you need to know about concussions.

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What is a concussion?

A concussion is a form of brain injury. Symptoms of a concussion may start immediately after an injury or take days or weeks to show up. The injury is diagnosed mainly using a neurologic exam and cognitive exam. Imaging tests can be helpful in some severe cases, but they often don’t show the damage done to the brain in a concussion. Most people recover fully after a concussion, but it can take time. Physical and cognitive rest are very important after a concussion to allow for recovery. As symptoms improve, individuals can slowly return to their prior activities.

What are the signs of a concussion?

Picking up on the signs and symptoms of concussion can accelerate how quickly a person gets treated, minimize their symptoms, and prevent the potentially disastrous consequences of a repeat concussion. You should think about a concussion if a person:

  • Can’t recall events prior to or after a hit or fall.

  • Appears dazed or stunned.

  • Forgets an instruction, is confused about an assignment or position, or is unsure of the game, score, or opponent.

  • Moves clumsily.

  • Answers questions slowly.

  • Loses consciousness (even briefly).

  • Shows mood, behavior, or personality changes.

You should also worry if a person has the following symptoms after head trauma:

  • Headache or “pressure” in head.

  • Nausea or vomiting.

  • Balance problems or dizziness, or double or blurry vision.

  • Bothered by light or noise.

  • Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy, or groggy.

  • Confusion, or concentration or memory problems.

  • Just not “feeling right,” or “feeling down.”

If you think someone has experienced a concussion or brain injury, they should be seen by health professional immediately for assessment.

What are the long-term risks?

Most children with a single, mild concussion will fully recover within a year of their injury. However, a significant number of people may experience symptoms for weeks to months after the injury. These symptoms can include:

  • Headaches

  • Dizziness

  • Cognitive impairment, including trouble with memory, attention, and learning

  • Vision changes

  • Mood changes

A smaller proportion of people may continue to experience these symptoms for years after a single concussion.

Second impact syndrome is a rare but often fatal complication of concussion. It happens when a person who hasn’t completely recovered from a first concussion is struck and concussed again. This can lead to massive brain swelling and death. While the condition is uncommon, it emphasizes the need to remove an athlete from play if a concussion is suspected.

People who have already sustained a concussion are at greater risk for subsequent concussions. It’s thought this is because the brain is more susceptible to damage when it is recovering from a prior injury. In addition, the effects of multiple concussions are likely cumulative, with each causing more severe symptoms, requiring longer recovery time, and resulting in greater underlying damage. This can lead to long-term cognitive problems, mood changes, personality and behavior changes, and even speech abnormalities.

A growing amount of research is indicating that repeated concussions and blows to the head over the course of a lifetime could lead to a type of early-onset dementia called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Who's at risk?

It is estimated that 1.6 to 3.8 million concussions occur in the U.S. each year during competitive sports and recreational activities. As many as 50 percent of those concussions may go unreported. While football is often cited as the most dangerous and damaging of sports, other sports can pose a risk as well. A study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found the following sports to be most dangerous during competitive game play:

  • Men’s football

  • Men’s wrestling

  • Men’s soccer

  • Women’s soccer

  • Men’s ice hockey

When it came to injuries during practice, some sports jumped up the list:

  • Men’s spring football

  • Women’s gymnastics

  • Men’s wrestling

  • Women’s soccer

  • Men’s soccer

While football often has the highest number of injuries, this is often because so many people participate. Some sports, like ice hockey, have been found to have higher rates of concussion per player. Preseason sports practice is also often particularly dangerous, and research has shown that high school athletes are the most at risk. Girls are also at higher risk than boys for reasons that are still unclear.

The risk is not limited to young athletes. Older adults are often at risk for concussions and other brain injuries because they are more susceptible to dangerous falls. The loss of balance and coordination with age can make a person more likely to fall and hit their head while doing everyday activities.

How do I prevent concussions?

The best way to avoid brain injury is to prevent it in the first place. Helmets have played a major role in reducing the number of head injuries in sports. However, helmets can’t completely prevent concussions and are generally best for preventing life-threatening head trauma. Take the following steps to protect your children:

  • Discuss the dangers of concussion with your children and the importance of safety.

  • Wear a helmet and any other protective equipment recommended for your sport.

  • Make sure any protective equipment fits properly.

  • Follow all safety rules for a sport.

  • Don’t allow your child to return to play if you think they’ve had a concussion.

  • Use seat belts in the car and child seats if needed to prevent brain injury in a crash.

Remember, concussion risk is greater in individuals who have already had a concussion. If you or a loved one has had a concussion recently, they should be transitioned slowly back to everyday activities under the guidance of a doctor.

To protect older adults, try to remove potential fall risks. That includes:

  • Moving wires or carpets that could be a tripping hazard.

  • Using nonslip mats in the kitchen, bathroom and shower.

  • Improving lighting in your home.

  • Staying active.

Have questions about concussions? Read this FAQ.