Multiple concussions can be a serious health risk.
Concussion symptoms vary depending on the severity of the head injury. Usually caused by a traumatic blow to the head, a concussion is an injury to the brain that impedes normal functioning. Concussions may not be accompanied by visible signs of trauma (like cuts and bruises) and may not involve loss of consciousness. According to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, more than 1.1 million cases of concussions occur annually in the United States, with males between the ages of 16 to 25 representing the highest risk demographic. While concussion symptoms range from mild to severe, repeated traumatic injuries to the head can be serious and symptoms should be carefully monitored by a medical professional.
A concussion occurs when the brain hits the skull, either because of a blow to the head or because of the impact of a crash. Often, concussions are caused by falls, traffic accidents and injuries during contact sports. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) estimates that there are 300,000 annual incidents of concussions in football players at the professional, collegiate and high school levels. Furthermore, the AANS reports that athletes with a history of concussion are three to six times more likely to incur another concussion. Although accidents during contact sports are common causes of concussions, these brain injuries can result from any trauma to the head.
Concussion symptoms can be mild, may not appear immediately and may last for a few days, a few weeks or longer. Some of the immediate symptoms of a concussion can include:
• Amnesia (particularly memory loss of the traumatic event)
• Ringing in the ears
• Slurred speech
• Impaired vision
• Poor balance
• Trouble concentrating
• Loss of smell or taste
Other symptoms of concussions do not appear immediately but may show up hours or even days after the traumatic injury. These symptoms include alterations in mood or cognition, sensitivity to light and noise and disturbed sleep. The severity and persistence of the concussion symptoms indicates the seriousness of the head injury.
Household falls are a common cause of concussions, particularly for small children. However, infants and toddlers, while susceptible to head injuries, may not be able to identify or explain their symptoms. Nonverbal concussion symptoms to look for in infants and children include:
• Lack of energy
• Irritable temperament
• Alteration of eating or sleeping habits
• Loss of interest in favorite activities
• Poor balance
Typically, medical providers grade concussions based on the severity of the symptoms. With a grade one concussion, the patient does not lose consciousness and suffers from amnesia for no more than 30 minutes, if at all. With a grade two concussion, loss of consciousness lasts fewer than five minutes and memory loss lasts for 30 minutes to 24 hours. A grade three concussion, the most severe injury, involves loss of consciousness for more than five minutes and amnesia for more than 24 hours.
Doctors can closely monitor patients' symptoms to diagnose concussions. If unconsciousness occurs, its duration and the accompanying confusion signals are a good barometer for the severity of the concussion. An examination of the patient's memory, concentration, coordination, sensation and dilation of pupils may also help a doctor diagnose the extent of the head injury.
CT scans and MRIs can also be used to determine the extent of injury to the brain in severe or uncertain cases. While a CT scan is not always necessary, the presence of certain factors may warrant the test to determine the severity of the injury. These factors include:
• Being under the age of 16 or over the age of 64
• Falling more than three feet
• Being in a motor vehicle accident
• Suffering from a seizure
• Incurring scrapes, cuts and bruises
• Fracturing the skull
• Failing to recall the accident for more than 30 minutes after it occurs
• Struggling with short-term memory after regaining consciousness
• Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs
Treatment depends on the severity of the initial concussion. Typically, doctors recommend rest, over-the-counter pain relievers, observation and avoidance of contact sports until all fconcussion symptoms disappear . A number of complications can arise following traumatic head injuries, including post-concussion syndrome (in which symptoms persist for weeks or months beyond the initial injury), and cumulative neurological damage for those who suffer multiple concussions over time and seizures . According to the Mayo Clinic, concussion sufferers are twice as likely to develop epilepsy within five years of the concussion. Another issue, second-impact syndrome, occurs when a patient suffers a second concussion before the first has healed. Second-impact syndrome can be fatal, and it points to the necessity of seeking medical treatment for all possible concussions, and abstaining from high-risk activities until recovery is complete.