Learn about concussion basics

A concussion is a mild form of a traumatic brain injury.  

“When someone strikes their head hard enough the brain shifts inside the skull, which is encased in cerebral spinal fluid,” says Alicia Trbovich, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program. “Our brains are composed of millions of brain cells called neurons and their membranes can get stretched out, causing chemical dysregulation. This causes what we call an ‘energy crisis,’ and leads to the post-concussion symptoms that we see in clinic, like headache, nausea, dizziness, and problems with memory.”  

Concussions are very common. Somewhere between 1.8 and 3.6 million sports- and recreation-related cases occurring each year in the United States. 

After a concussion, people may have problems with thinking, mood, vision, migraines, and balance and movement (the vestibular system). Although the exact signs and symptoms of a concussion vary from person to person, confusion, dizziness, and headaches are typical. 

What Causes a Concussion?

Concussions can affect people of all ages, and they occur for a variety of reasons. The most common causes are slips and falls, car accidents, bike accidents, and sports injuries. Other hits to the head can cause concussions as well.

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What Are the Symptoms of a Concussion?

People who have suffered a concussion may experience:

  • Anxiety, depression, and other mood changes.
  • Confusion.
  • Difficulty concentrating and paying attention.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headache.
  • Sensitivity to light.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Nausea.
  • Neck pain or stiffness.
  • Sensitivity to noise.
  • Personality changes.
  • Sleeping too much or too little.
  • Vision changes and other problems with the eyes.

Do Concussion Symptoms Show Up Right Away?

Concussion symptoms often show up in the first few minutes after a traumatic event; however, symptoms also can be delayed and appear up to two days later.

Sometimes symptoms don’t appear until you use the affected part of the brain. For example, if a concussion has affected your balance and spatial orientation, symptoms may only become more obvious during a car ride or when walking down stairs.

How Are Concussions Treated?

Most concussions are mild and highly treatable. The best way to prevent long-term problems is to seek treatment right away.

“When seeking treatment for a suspected concussion, sooner is better,” Dr. Trbovich says. “We recently published a study that showed patients who are initially evaluated within the first week of their concussion recovered faster, meaning they felt better sooner. The sooner we can evaluate, the sooner we can initiate the treatment plan.” 

Health care professionals typically start with an exam to determine if the patient has a concussion and identify the type of concussion. Knowing the type of concussion helps to determine the best way to treat it.

“A couple of decades ago, patients were told to go home and rest until they felt better. We have learned that this does not work most of the time. Now, we are able to do comprehensive, detailed evaluations and we can target specific impairments and symptoms with different therapies and behavioral management strategies,” says Dr. Trbovich. 

Physical and mental rest are important for recovery with certain types of concussions, but patients often need more specific treatments, such as physical therapy, vestibular therapy, and even physical workouts. For people suffering from headaches, over-the-counter pain relievers are often recommended, although these sometimes aren’t effective or may cause rebound headaches.

Are the Health Effects Worse With Multiple Concussions?

With proper treatment and care, having one concussion doesn’t mean the effects of subsequent concussions will add up or be worse. But multiple concussions may put people at risk for cognitive and neurological problems. Further research is needed to better understand this issue.

Concussions Among Young Athletes

Concussions are common among athletes in various sports, including cheerleading, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, football, and others.

It’s important for athletes to immediately leave the field if they exhibit any signs or symptoms of a concussion — not just those who lose consciousness. Other signs that mean an athlete should stop playing include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and loss of memory.

Research shows patients who stop playing immediately recover more quickly than patients who stay on the field following head trauma.

When a young athlete suffers a concussion, it’s important to seek treatment immediately at a clinic that specializes in concussions. Long-term side effects are possible if an athlete returns to their sport before fully recovered or without the consent of their doctor.

With appropriate treatment, most young athletes can safely return to the sports they love.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Facts for Physicians About Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI).

British Journal of Sports Medicine. A systematic review of potential long-term effects of sport-related concussion.

Pediatrics—Official Journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics. Removal From Play After Concussion and Recovery Time.

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.