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Recovery after a concussion

Wednesday 7 June 2017

A man sits in bed, under the doona, his hands on his temples.
Even though concussion is common, it should still be treated seriously, with lots of rest during recovery.

In Australia, we hear about concussion a lot. It comes up in sports reports, at workplace health and safety sessions, and on TV dramas that require a convenient lapse in a character’s memory.

It’s not surprising, then, that concussion is the most common type of mild or moderate head injury. But just because concussion is common doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be treated seriously.

How does concussion happen?

A concussion is an injury that affects the brain. Depending on how the injury happened, a concussion might be accompanied by superficial head injuries like cuts or bruising, neck or other body injuries.

Concussion can occur after a blow to the head, including being hit by or colliding with a person or object, or the head hitting the ground or a piece of furniture after a fall. It can also be caused by a sudden change in direction of the head, like whiplash in a car accident.

These forces cause the soft brain tissue to bounce against the hard bones of the skull, which can damage the cells and neurons of the brain and cause swelling or bruising. This damage causes the symptoms of concussion.

How can you tell if someone has a concussion?

Unlike a cut or bruise, it’s hard to ‘see’ a concussion, and while researchers are working on it, there are no current blood or saliva tests for the condition.

It’s important that a person who has injured their head sees a doctor as soon as possible. The doctor will conduct a neurological examination to see if the person is concussed, asking them to answer questions and complete tasks that will show how well their brain is working. You can read through the steps that a specialist rugby league doctor takes to identify concussed players in the ABC’s article, ‘Explainer: How the rugby league concussion test works.’

What are the symptoms of concussion?

The symptoms of concussion can vary for each person. A concussed person may:

  • ‘black out’ for a short period of time
  • be confused
  • have a headache
  • experience nausea or vomiting
  • feel dizzy
  • or feel drowsy.

What should I do if I think someone has been concussed?

It is important that a person with a suspected concussion sees a doctor soon after the injury. If the injury is serious or potentially life threatening, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance for emergency assistance.

If necessary, the doctor may order tests like x-rays or CT scans to rule out further brain or body injuries. Some concussion patients will be kept in hospital to be observed, to see if their symptoms change or worsen.

How are concussions treated?

There’s no way to ‘cure’ a concussion with medicine, but most patients recover fully within two weeks of their injury. It is important that someone with a concussion rests appropriately once they are home from the doctor or hospital. You can find information about looking after someone who has a concussion on our Minor Head Injury factsheet [PDF 78.1KB].

Why is rest after a concussion so important?

Rest, both physical and mental, is necessary after a concussion, so that the brain has time to heal. Asking too much of the brain in the days after concussion could prolong symptoms or make them worse.

A concussed person should rest quietly at home in the days after their injury, not using the computer, playing video games, doing any problem solving activities or returning to work or school straight away.

People who play sport should not go back to training or competition until they are fully recovered. This allows them to rest and recover, as well as avoiding the chance of getting another concussion, which could lead to more severe symptoms than the first injury.

A young Asian boy rests quietly in bed.

Post concussive syndrome

A small number of people will have ongoing symptoms for weeks or months after their concussion. This is called post concussive syndrome. Australian tennis player Casey Dellacqua spoke publicly about her experience of serious symptoms from post concussive syndrome, after falling and hitting her head during a match.

Symptoms of post concussive syndrome can include:

  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • insomnia
  • memory and thinking problems
  • sensitivity to light
  • and depression or anxiety.

Research is still being undertaken to discover exactly what causes post concussive syndrome in some concussion patients and not others, and how to treat it. There is some evidence to suggest that not resting appropriately after the initial injury might make post concussive syndrome more likely.

How to reduce the risk of concussion

The only way to reduce the risk of concussion is to reduce the chance of blows to the head, and to use protective equipment to lessen the potential impact of blows or falls. Seatbelts, helmets, protective matting and ‘high contact’ rules in sports can all reduce the likelihood of concussion.

Last updated: 23 August 2017