When you experience a blow to the head, knowing whether you've suffered a concussion isn't always clear cut.
"It's critical for parents, coaches, players and trainers to recognize the potential signs and symptoms of a concussion," says Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D., a sports neurologist who treats athletes at the Henry Ford Kutcher Clinic for Concussion and Sports Neurology. "The basic rule is that a concussion can affect any aspect of brain function."
Signs of Concussion
The Latin root of the word "concussion" means "to shake violently" — which makes sense. Concussions happen when there's a combination of movement and impact. So, any injury that involves a hit to the head — a fall, collision or hard hit by a heavy object — could cause one. So could a hit to the body that causes the head to move quickly.
"But every brain injury is different," Dr. Kutcher says. "Some symptoms show up right away while others develop gradually over days."
Here are common concussion symptoms to watch for — both immediately following a head injury and in the hours and days after:
Physical Concussion Symptoms
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Difficulty with balance
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Light sensitivity
- Numbness or tingling
- Sensitivity to sound
- Visual problems
Emotional Concussion Symptoms
- Mood swings
Cognitive Concussion Symptoms
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling "slow" or "foggy"
- Memory problems
Diagnosing Concussion: Getting It Right
One reason concussions are frequently misdiagnosed is because they're assessed on the field or courtside during game play or practice. Coaches, trainers and parents often make lightning fast decisions about whether symptoms, such as headache, nausea and light sensitivity, are signs of concussion.
"Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than completing a concussion checklist. Everyone — and every concussion — is different. So, observers shouldn’t be diagnosing a head injury on the spot, but rather making a triage decision for safety. They should leave the diagnosis to the medical professionals," Dr. Kutcher says. In fact, those in-the-moment assessments are wrong about half of the time.
People should focus instead on getting immediate, emergency care for anyone who displays the following signs and symptoms right after a hit:
- Difficulty walking
- Weakness on one or both sides
- Not waking up
- Repeated vomiting
- Persistent confusion
No matter how hard (or lightly) you think you've been hit, it's important to take head injury symptoms seriously. Even a seemingly minor blow could have a major impact. A complete evaluation by a medical professional will not only determine whether you have a concussion, it can also identify more serious, or even life-threatening, concerns.
"In every case, medical professionals are better equipped to assess the extent of the damage if you have a comprehensive baseline evaluation on file," Dr. Kutcher says. This thorough evaluation with a sports neurologist, including a complete family and neurological history, can act as a critical point of reference when trainers and medical professionals are trying to diagnose or manage a concussion.
Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher is a sports neurologist and the medical director of the Henry Ford Kutcher Clinic for Concussion and Sports Neurology.
Want to learn more? Henry Ford Health System sports medicine experts are treating the whole athlete, in a whole new way. From nutrition to neurology, and from injury prevention to treatment of sports-related conditions, they can give your athlete a unique game plan.
Visit henryford.com/sports or call (313) 972-4216 for an appointment within 24 business hours.
When you've been hit with an injury, it's natural to want to get back to your regular activities as soon as possible. In fact, it's not uncommon for athletes to sidestep doctors' orders and return to the field or the court before an injury has healed.
"It doesn’t matter how much you train, or how much you prepare, injuries are going to happen, especially if you're an athlete," says Jamie Schwab, an athletic trainer at Henry Ford Health System. "But the real trouble arises when athletes try to play through their pain without allowing sufficient time for recovery."
Risks Of Returning Too Soon After Injury
If you sprain your ankle during a cross country run, it can be tempting to finish the race. Unfortunately, hiding your pain and powering through the activity can actually make matters worse.
"If you continue to work out after suffering from an injury, you run the risk of furthering that injury," Schwab says. So what began as a minor ankle sprain can evolve into a major sprain that sidelines you for weeks.
Returning to play after surgery demands extra precautions. "Athletes are a lot more susceptible to re-injury after returning from surgery, especially if they don't complete the entire 9-month or year-long rehabilitation protocol," Schwab says. In some cases, you can exacerbate an injury to such a degree that you'll never be able to participate in the same capacity.
A Safe Return To Play
The road back to play after an injury is a long and winding one. Before you can even consider returning to exercise, you need to reduce swelling, get pain under control and get your range of motion back to almost normal.
"The recovery process takes time," Schwab says. "But if you stick with it, and you take it seriously, it's going to be a whole lot easier for you to return to the playing field in a timely manner."
Once you get pain and swelling under control, you can focus on agility and weight exercises that will help you regain strength and slowly return to baseline. The key tenets for a safer return to play:
► Be honest about your abilities: "So many athletes are afraid to tell the truth," Schwab says. "But if you're hurting and you're not competing at your full potential, you're letting your team down and yourself down, too." Even worse, you could increase your risk of further injury.
► Focus on building strength: Strength training is critical. It can help you become faster, stronger and more agile on the field. It can also help you recover more quickly after an injury.
► Listen to your body: If something doesn't feel right, pay attention to it. Talk to your athletic trainer or a physical therapist to get to the bottom of what's bugging you and put a plan in place to address it.
Boosting Performance Over The Long Haul
Unfortunately, not every coach and athletic trainer stresses the importance of a maintenance program. In fact, focused training and maintenance exercises are key to preventing injuries in the first place.
"The rehabilitation exercises you begin doing on day one after injury need to be maintained at least three to four times each week, indefinitely," Schwab says. "If you follow that regimen, all of your muscular nagging strains will no longer be a problem because your body is constantly adapting to the stresses. It's conditioned, it's strong, it can withstand the constant changes in direction."
Most importantly, don't be afraid to try complementary strategies. Practice using a foam roller, try cupping to release tension in the muscles and enhance blood flow and consider getting a monthly massage.
Jamie Schwab, AT, ATC, SCAT, CSCS, is an athletic trainer with Henry Ford Sports Medicine and works with student athletes at Edsel Ford High School. She is a National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified strength and conditioning specialist.
To find a sports medicine doctor or athletic trainer at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com/sports.