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A young football player takes a blow to the head from a charging opponent. Elsewhere, a driver feels her head snap back as someone rear ends her car at a stoplight.
A concussion occurs when the brain experiences a forceful, blow, jolt or other jarring of the head that creates a functional disturbance.
“The brain sits in a bowl of fluid, and a mild traumatic brain injury like a concussion can cause it to slosh around,” says Emily Dixon, DO, sports medicine physician with TriHealth Orthopedic & Sports Institute and medical director of the TriHealth Concussion Program.
Common symptoms of concussion include headaches, nausea, vomiting, mood changes, difficulty concentrating and fatigue.
Although players, coaches and parents have gained much greater respect for head injuries, it’s important to know precautions to take and why they matter.
Every person is different, but on average, a first concussion takes two to six weeks to heal. Some take six to 12 weeks to completely resolve. If a person still experiences symptoms past 12 weeks, it’s called post-concussion syndrome and requires further evaluation and care. Services like the TriHealth Concussion Program offer neuropsychology, speech and vestibular therapy (for balance and dizziness issues), physical therapy and occupational therapy to look for causes and solutions to ongoing pressure in the head or issues with balance, vision or concentration.
“If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right,” Dr. Dixon says. For athletes who have had a head blow, she cautions, “To continue playing will make symptoms worse.” She also notes that getting people into vestibular therapy in the first 24 to 48 hours helps them get better faster.
If the brain is still inflamed from a first concussion, Dr. Dixon says, “The second concussion can cause quite a bit of damage. In rare cases, people can get second impact syndrome, in which the brain swells and pushes down on the brain stem and cuts off basic life functions. It happens rapidly and can cause sudden death. This is why you need to be completely healed before returning to play.”
More than one mild concussion over time can lead to permanent changes in thinking, sensation, language and emotions. Research shows concussions can later cause epilepsy and increase the risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders.
For adults and children who have issues that affect the brain, such as learning disorders, attention deficit, depression, anxiety or migraines, a concussion can often worsen symptoms. People with these brain disturbances may heal more slowly and require additional care.
Dr. Dixon notes, “Rules are being put in place to protect athletes.” State laws are now in effect for referees or coaches to pull an athlete from a game if a concussion is suspected. The player must then be evaluated by a physician or athletic trainer and medically cleared before playing again.
Dr. Dixon and her concussion team work with area high schools and colleges to do baseline tests before a head injury takes place, use special evaluation tools for injured students and follow strict return-to-play guidelines endorsed by experts around the world.
She says, “The key is to prevent injuries, assess them quickly when they occur and get appropriate treatment. We want our athletes to be symptom free before they return to play.”