A concussion of any kind is considered a traumatic brain injury. Traumatic brain injuries can occur if you’re in a car accident, you fall, you’re the victim of violence, or you’re doing an athletic activity that involves contact. Sports are one of the most common reasons children experience head injuries.
When someone has a concussion, symptoms can appear gradually and worsen over time and become more apparent. That makes it extremely important that anytime a head injury happens, you get medical care.
The following are some general things to know about a concussion and how you can identify the differences in one that’s mild or potentially more severe.
What Is a Concussion?
When someone experiences a blow, jolt, or pump, it can disrupt the normal functionality of their brain, leading to a concussion.
A concussion can occur because of a direct hit to the head. Concussions can also happen when you experience something that causes your head to forcefully move backward, forwards, or to the side, which is often the case in car accidents.
When you experience a concussion, it stretches and bruises your nerves and blood vessels in the brain, causing chemical changes. Those chemical changes lead to a temporary loss of brain function.
One concussion isn’t likely to cause permanent brain damage, but multiple concussions that happen over the course of your life can cause permanent structural changes. While most concussions aren’t life-threatening, the symptoms can last for weeks or longer.
Your brain is soft and surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid. That fluid cushions your brain from the hard exterior covering it, which is your skull. If you have a concussion, your brain bounces inside your skull or moves around in a fast way that causes it to hit the inside of the skull.
Symptoms of a concussion can include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of consciousness temporarily
- Balance problems
- Feeling lightheaded
- Blurry or double vision
- Ringing in the ears
- Changes in sleep habits
- Problems with concentration or understanding
- Sadness or depression
- Irritability or anxiety
- Feeling foggy
- Memory loss or forgetfulness
Concussion symptoms can begin to appear within minutes of sustaining a head injury, but some symptoms take hours to appear. The symptoms can also, as mentioned, worsen days later, or when you’re stressing your brain, the symptoms can become apparent.
When you have a mild concussion, you can experience any of the above symptoms, but they will typically get better within a couple of weeks. You may have headaches earlier on and then later feel nauseous. When you’re around a week or two out from your injury, you might feel more emotional than you would typically or have sleep disturbances.
When you have a mild TBI, you might not even realize that it’s the symptoms of the head injury causing you to feel or act a certain way.
A very mild concussion is usually called Grade 1 or low-grade. With a low-grade concussion, the most common symptoms named above are focus problems, memory loss, dizziness, and nausea. Within a few days after a mild or Grade 1 concussion, you can usually return to your normal activities.
When you initially are hurt with a low-grade concussion, you don’t lose consciousness. Minor vehicle accidents and accidents related to playing a sport are the most common reason for a mild concussion.
The symptoms of a moderate concussion are similar to mild symptoms, except that you briefly lose consciousness at the time of the injury. You might lose consciousness for at least a minute, but to classify it as a moderate concussion, it should be less than five minutes.
Additional symptoms you may experience with a moderate concussion include ringing in the ears, brief amnesia, and irritability. You need several days of rest following a grade 2 concussion before you can return to your normal activities.
A severe concussion is also called high-grade or Grade 3. A Grade 3 concussion means you lose consciousness for more than five minutes at the time of your injury. The symptoms may last for weeks before they start to get better, and there is a risk of permanent brain damage.
If you have a severe concussion, you might experience vomiting, amnesia for more than 24 hours, problems with speech, and you may see stars or have other visual disturbances.
Some health care facilities will use Grade 3 and Grade 4 to distinguish between the severity of concussions. Grade 3 in these instances means you lose consciousness for less than a minute, but it’s still a severe injury, while Grade 4 indicates loss of consciousness for longer than a minute.
In 2013, the American Academy of Neurology decided to update guidelines for evaluating and managing sports concussions. The organization recommends now not using traditional grading systems and instead evaluating concussions on an individual basis.
Signs of an Emergency
Sometimes with a concussion, you might initially think it’s mild, but as was touched on, it can become evident that’s not the case later on.
Symptoms of an emergency related to a head injury or concussion include:
- Repeated vomiting
- You feel begin to feel unsteady on your feet
- Your headache gets worse
- You’re incredibly drowsy to the point that you feel you’re having a hard time staying awake
- You don’t feel able to recognize people or places
- One pupil is larger than the other
- Slurred speech
- Abnormal behavior like irritability or confusion
- A fever
While a doctor might diagnose a head injury as mild, moderate, or severe, in many ways, it’s highly individualized. It can be difficult to know if someone is completely recovered. On average, you should anticipate taking at least two to four weeks off from strenuous activities when recovering from even a mild concussion. You should also talk to your health care provider and be honest about all of your symptoms, even if that means you’ll potentially need more downtime and recovery time.