Originally Published: February 21, 1997 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: October 24, 2007
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Dear Alice,

What are the symptoms of a concussion? What happens if you have a concussion and it goes untreated?

Dear Reader,

Our brains are surrounded and cushioned by special fluid designed to protect the brain from the jarring movements of everyday life. However, a strong enough blow to the head can injure the brain, causing a concussion. People often get concussions while playing sports (like football, boxing, ice hockey, biking, skiing and so on) or doing other recreational activities, but being involved in car crashes and falls are also common causes. Immediate signs and symptoms of a concussion may include:

  • Confusion or problems concentrating
  • Memory loss (Usually the events immediately preceding and those occurring immediately after the incident causing the concussion are not remembered, though the memory loss can span for minutes or longer.)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Headache
  • Slurred speech
  • Blurred vision or dizziness
  • Ringing in ears
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unequal pupil size
  • Unusual eye movements
  • Convulsions

The signs and symptoms of a concussion may not be obvious, so it's helpful to be familiar with them. Also, some symptoms may not not appear until well after the collision (making it harder to recognize the injury). The effects of a concussion can last a week or longer. Some of the delayed signs and symptoms of a concussion may include:

  • Recurring headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Mood and cognitive disturbances like irritability; anxiety; depression; problems with remembering, concentration, attention, etc.
  • Decrease or loss of sex drive
  • Problems sleeping
  • Increased sensitivity to light and sound
  • Difficulty with walking normally or with coordination

While most concussions do get better on their own, some blows to the head can cause more serious injury. Anyone who experiences the following symptoms after a head injury should see his/her health care provider as soon as possible:

  • Prolonged headache or dizziness
  • Vision disturbances
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Impaired balance
  • Prolonged memory loss
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Loss of smell or taste

Anyone who has had a concussion in the past is more susceptible to getting another concussion — even from a less forceful head injury. It's especially important to get the OK from a health care provider before jumping back into an activity where a second head bump could occur. If someone with a concussion too hastily returns to contact sports or activities, a second concussion can result in second impact syndrome — a potentially fatal condition. Second impact syndrome is when another blow to the head (even a minor one) results in the brain losing its ability to control its own blood flow, which increases pressure in the head and can lead to death, usually within 2 – 5 minutes. Second impact syndrome most often affects young athletes (in junior and senior high school), but any athlete who returns to a sport too soon is at risk.

If you are recovering at home from a mild concussion, it is important to get plenty of rest. You may want to ice your head where the contact occurred, and you can also take over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen (avoid aspirin). Drink plenty of water, avoid alcoholic drinks, and protect your head by not participating in any vigorous or contact activities until your health care provider gives you the A-OK.

The take home message here is that concussions should not be taken lightly. Proper medical care (if required) and enough rest are essential for recovery. If you are a student at Columbia, you can make an appointment at Primary Care Medical Services (x4-2284 or log on to Open Communicator) or you can visit Urgent Care if you think there's a chance that you've had a concussion. (If you're not at Columbia, you'll want to schedule a visit with your health care provider right away.) And remember, be careful with your head because it's the only one you've got!