What is a concussion?

Perhaps you have grown up hearing that a concussion is a bruise to the brain. Or, maybe after a hit to the head, you have been told: “You’ll be fine — you just got your bell rung.”

While these are common beliefs, they are inaccurate. First, bruising suggests bleeding, and a concussed brain does not bleed. In fact, images of a concussed brain may look normal as concussions generally do not show up on MRI or CT scans.

concussion, head injury, what is a concussion, brain injuryThis is because a concussion is an injury that disrupts the normal functioning of the brain. In other words, it can temporarily change how the brain works but does not change the appearance of the brain. These changes, which can show up symptomatically throughout the entire body, may affect mood, cause blurry or double vision, produce balance problems, create increased sensitivity to light and sound, and be the root of behavior changes.

Since brain injuries are not visible to the eye, someone with a concussion may “look” normal and may be accused of “faking it” or be directed to “just walk it off.” But a concussion can be a very serious injury, identified mainly by concussion symptoms that you cannot just “walk off.” It is important to have an awareness of the many indicators of concussion.

Many people have difficulty identifying concussion symptoms because indicators may not appear for hours, days, or even weeks after the initial hit to the head or blow to the body. It is therefore important to be aware of the large variety of symptoms that may result from a concussion.

Symptoms of a concussion generally affect four areas: thinking and remembering; your physical body; mood and emotions; and sleep. If you are suffering from a concussion, you may find your thoughts are fuzzy or you don’t feel quite right. Or you may find you have trouble concentrating, thinking, studying or remembering. You may physically have trouble balancing or have blurred or double vision. You may experience headaches, nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue or loss of energy. Your emotions and mood may be different. You may feel irritable, sad, depressed or more anxious than usual. You may find you are sleeping more than usual, less than usual or have difficulty falling asleep. However, it is important to understand that you need only one of these symptoms to indicate a concussion.

It is important to keep in mind that recovery typically means someone has lost certain abilities temporarily and will regain them. For a person with a brain injury — even an injury as common as a concussion — although he or she may look the same, the changes to the brain may be long-lasting and adjustment is an ongoing process. Often, concussion recovery in young children and teens can take longer than usual. Symptoms can last for days, weeks or longer. Sometimes, recovering from a concussion may take months or years. And, some people may never fully recover from a concussion. The good news is that most people recover quickly and fully from concussions. Generally, recovery includes getting plenty of rest, avoiding physical activity and limiting school work. In some cases, special eye therapies, occupational therapy or balance exercises may be necessary to expedite recovery.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Oregon Concussion Awareness and Management Program each have helpful information about concussions and healing from them afterwards.

Kayt Zundel, MPA, MS
Program Director
OHSU ThinkFirst Oregon
Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Prevention

23 responses to “What is a concussion?

  1. I hurt my head a few days ago and am having nearly all of these symptoms of a concussion! I’m going to make sure I get lots of rest. Had NO idea concussions are really serious injuries. Thanks Kayt! 🙂

  2. This article was very helpful and informative. My husband was recently in a car accident where he hit his head and suffered from a concussion. Of course I was off and searching around the Internet for more information. This article was able to validate some of my concerns as well as answer some questions I had.

  3. Thanks for sharing this information with the public, Kayt. Having suffered a severe closed-head injury, I can state with certainty that you are right on about the symptoms. And about “recovery” being a relative term and a long process.I know how it feels when people mistake your head injury-related symptoms for something else. I experienced difficulties with balance and speech following my injury, and several people thought that I was drunk (humiliating). Keep up the good work, Think First.

  4. I didn’t realize there were so many different symptoms of a concussion. I thought you could tell if someone had one by just looking to see if their eyes were dilated. Lots of good information to know.

  5. I work with student dancers, who suffer injuries to their bodies on a regular basis, and sometimes head injuries. This has been very eye opening, and will help me to better assess injuries and be more aware of the lasting effects on my dancers.

  6. Great information. Played sports in school growing up and was frequently hit in the head and told to simply walk it off and get back in the game. Looking back I could have received concussions. Thanks for posting! Will help me be more careful with my kids and their experiences in sports.

  7. I enjoyed reading this article! Definitely going to add to my favorites for future reference. Thank you!

  8. Thank you for the article! I had no idea the number of symptoms of a concussion. So many of them are easy to dismiss with perhaps serious consequences.

  9. This is a very well done article and I appreciate the effort Kayt put into getting all this info into one great article!!!

  10. All my son’s play Rugby and this is perfect to hand out to our parents. Many of us have a limited understanding of what a concussion is, but this article clears up any misconceptions and gives me a better idea what to look for.

    I’m going to try and get this posted on our Rugby website too.

  11. The first few lines of this article really grabbed my attention and I wanted to keep reading. I’m glad to have more information and understanding about concussions. Thank you.

  12. Great information! I didn’t realize there were all those different symptoms. I thought you could tell if someone had a concussion by looking at their eyes.

  13. Great information for us to share with families that visit the Safety Center. We receive many questions about kids and head injuries that result from falls or accidents during school sport activites. These are great tips on identifying and treating concussions.
    Thank you!

  14. Great information and easy to understand. It really is so easy to get a concussion and not even realize you have one because you think your symptoms may be from something else. I have had two that I know of and the funny thing is that my head never “hit” anything either time. Thanks for the good article.

  15. Great article, Kayt! I might add that a person who has sustained a concussion should limit doing anything cognitive, like getting on social media/computer, video games, and the like, in addition to school work, like you mentioned.

    Keep up the good work!

  16. Thanks, Kayt, for posting this info. I thought it was well written, easy to understand and very informative. I plan to send the link to some parents I know with kids in sports who need to be aware. It’s scary how the physical contact in sports has escalated in recent years for both boys and girls.

  17. There is almost no evidence for many of the assertions made in this posting. We are about to submit our evidence report on the definition of concussion to the DoD and CDC which identifies many of the assumptions being made. Management of “back to play or duty” decisions has been based primarily on opinion, and focuses on symptoms, which may or may not be providing a complete picture.

  18. I am particularly interested in how long recovery from a “mild” concussion may take, e.g. head pain.

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