What to do After a Suspected Concussion

If you experience a head injury, follow these five steps

Concussions are a form of traumatic head injury caused by a bump or blow to the head, or even a subtle, sharp jolt. While their symptoms can seem minor or take some time to appear, concussions carry serious risks and can have long-lasting side effects. If you feel “off” after a head injury and think you might have a concussion, follow these five steps to evaluate your symptoms and figure out what to do next.

1. Immediately Respond

Don’t be dismissive about any form of head trauma: Concussions can occur from even a minor bump, and you don’t need to be knocked out to experience a concussion. If you’ve sustained a head injury during an activity, like playing sports, immediately remove yourself from play and take inventory of how you’re feeling. Symptoms of concussion might not develop until hours—or even days—after a blow to the head, according to the CDC. It’s best to take it easy and err on the side of caution. Ignoring the signs of a concussion—especially by resuming physical activity too soon after a head injury—can make those symptoms worse, make recovery take longer, according to the Centers for Disease Control, or even cause lasting side effects like post-traumatic headache.

2. Sit Out

Whether you’ve just pulled over after a fender-bender or removed yourself from play during a game, consult a medical professional if one is available, or call your a primary care doctor to discuss your injury. Recovery from a concussion takes up to two weeks for many people, or even longer for about 20 percent of the population, according to the Mayo Clinic. Don’t try to rush back into action until you’ve been cleared by a doctor.

3. See a Doctor

It’s best to seek medical attention as soon as you recognize concussion symptoms for an exam and diagnosis. Even if you felt well initially after your head injury, visit your doctor if you start to feel any concussion symptoms later. It’s not unusual for the effects of a concussion to be delayed by days or weeks. Post-concussive syndrome can appear even months after your initial injury. Untreated concussions can have serious, long-term effects, including post-traumatic headache and neurodegenerative issues, according to the Mayo Clinic.

4. Watch for Additional Symptoms

Concussion symptoms aren’t limited to head pain. Sluggishness, clumsiness and just feeling “off” are key indicators that your head injury could be more serious. Even if you don’t feel different immediately after bumping your head, you might still have a concussion and should watch out for the typical warning signs. Nausea, loss of consciousness and head pain are more noticeable symptoms of concussion, while others—like changes in your behavior or personality, or mood swings—can be harder for you to recognize. Concussion symptoms can vary from person to person, and they can emerge or worsen when you engage in physical activities or activities that require concentration. Be as detailed as possible in describing when your symptoms appeared and how severe they were; this can help a doctor determine the severity of your injury.

5. Recovery

Once you’ve been diagnosed with a concussion, follow your doctor’s prescribed treatment plan. There’s no one “cure” for a concussion, but following your treatment plan will give your brain the time and care it needs. It can take several weeks to recover from a concussion, and during this time you’re especially vulnerable to brain injuries like second impact syndrome—a second concussion before the first one had time to heal. So take it nice and slow. The CDC recommends asking your doctor for guidelines on when you’ll be well enough to drive or ride a bike and return to work. Get plenty of rest and avoid alcohol, drugs and physically demanding activities, and reintroduce things into your routine gradually.

People with concussion can return to playing sports and being active once their concussion has healed and they’ve been cleared by a medical professional. Returning to play should be done with the utmost care. Follow the CDC’s five-step approach to returning to physical activities safely. Ease in with light aerobic activities, gradually working your way back, and monitor your concussion symptoms closely during this time.