A concussion is a disturbance to brain function caused by a blow to the head or even another part of the body that leads to shaking or jarring of the brain.

The way we diagnose and treat concussions is rapidly evolving as we learn more about this serious and common problem. Many people assume that if they haven’t lost consciousness, then they don’t have a concussion.  This is not true!  Symptoms such as confusion, disorientation, or memory loss can all be signs of a concussion.  Other common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, or headache; and emotional changes such as sadness, short temper, and general fatigue.  These symptoms may occur for several days or even weeks after the injury.

If you believe that you have suffered a concussion, you should see your health care provider. The diagnosis is typically made after a thorough history and physical exam. Neurologic testing usually includes testing a person’s strength, sensation, balance, reflexes and memory.  It’s important to note that x-rays of the brain are rarely needed – and subject you to needless radiation.

So what do you do if you find out you’ve suffered a concussion? Your brain and your body need to rest and heal. Avoid TV, computers and even reading.  Physical exertion should also be avoided.  No medications will speed the recovery process.  Often you will be instructed to take Tylenol or Ibuprofen for the headache.  Occasionally nausea medications are prescribed.

You should plan to rest for 2-3 days.  After that, if you are feeling completely better you can gradually resume normal activities. All physical activity should be avoided until you are cleared by your medical provider.  Most people are able to resume full activity within 7-14 days but sometimes the symptoms can last much longer.  It is important not to resume sports activities until all your symptoms resolve and you have been cleared by your health care provider.  Prematurely returning to sports, academic or work-related activities while symptoms are still present may result in prolonged or worsening of your symptoms.

Concussions can occur in any sport.  Properly fitted equipment and appropriate training can minimize the risk, but it’s difficult to completely prevent concussions.   If you think you may have suffered a concussion, tell your coach or trainer so that you can be evaluated as soon as possible.

Stephen Leffler, MD, an emergency medicine physician, is the chief medical officer at The University of Vermont Medical Center. Learn more about Emergency Services at the UVM Medical Center.

Stephen M. Leffler, Professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM and former Medical Director of the Emergency Department, has been a practicing physician for 20 years.

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