Video transcription

We’ve all heard of concussions, but what are they, and how do you know if you’ve had one?

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head. It can happen from a fall, a car accident, an explosion or any sort of collision with something — anything that can cause a force to be transmitted to the head can cause a concussion.

The two most familiar sources of concussion are the military and contact sports, but they’re not the only ones. The majority of concussions happen off the battlefield and playing field, in everyday, random accidents like falls or car crashes.

Concussions are more common than you might think; every year in the United States there are 3.8 million of them. So let’s take a more in-depth look at a concussion.

Traumatic brain injury

When you injure the brain, that’s called a traumatic brain injury or a TBI.

There are different levels of seriousness of brain injury. At the worst, it’s called a severe TBI. The next level is called moderate, and then there’s mild TBI. A mild TBI is what we call a concussion.

Sometimes a concussion causes a brief loss of consciousness, but most commonly it doesn’t. This is why some people don’t even realize they’ve been concussed.

What happens to the brain in a concussion?

Imagine you’re a football player and you have a head-on collision with another player.

When your skull comes to a sudden stop, your brain keeps moving. It collides into the skull with so much force that it contracts and expands, causing shearing of cells in the brain.

Imagine that your skull is like a jar, and your brain is like Jello inside of it. Hitting the wall of the jar is what causes the trauma. That’s an injury to the brain, and so it’s known as traumatic brain injury.

The cells inside your brain make up networks of electrical circuits. When there’s injury, these circuits are disrupted and they don’t function normally.

In the case of a severe head injury, the symptoms tend to be clear: confusion, dizziness, vomiting and balance problems. But in the more common case of a mild TBI or concussion, the signs can be subtle, sometimes to the point of being invisible.

If you’ve hit your head (or have been violently shaken), doctors at the hospital will likely do a brain scan — also called a CT scan or MRI — to see if you have a bleed in or on the surface of your brain. This is known as a hematoma. If there is bleeding, it’s very dangerous because the blood will end up pushing on the brain and compressing it. This is why a bleed is a medical emergency that needs to be drained immediately. But the large majority of concussions don’t result in a bleed. And so the brain scan is not useful for telling you if you have a concussion in about 90% of cases.

In that case, there’s no visible sign — internal or external — and the diagnosis of a concussion is all about the symptoms you’re experiencing.

Concussion symptoms

In a concussion, the common physical symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • or balance problems

There are also cognitive symptoms like difficulty concentrating or remembering. There can also be emotional symptoms like irritability or sadness. Concussions can also disrupt the brain’s maintenance functions, so a person can often have sleep disturbances, or changes in appetite or energy levels.

When a head injury is serious, the symptoms are clear and recognizing that you’ve had a concussion is easy. But the difficult issue is that the symptoms of a concussion can be subtle and can vary between people. So a person with a concussion is likely to have some of these symptoms, but not all.

Also, the symptoms might not occur immediately after the injury, but instead, will show up an hour or a day later.

What do you do if you’ve had a concussion?

Find out in our next video.

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