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Concussions 101

It’s always difficult, especially with young children, to tell what is just a bump on the head or something more serious. Tryon Medical PartnersDr. Margaret Ball, is a family medicine specialist who sees patients of all ages in our Gaston location. She talks about concussions, aiming to provide clarity around what they are, how to identify them, and how to prevent them in the first place. 

Dr. Ball’s day-to-day work revolves around patients of all ages, offering pediatric and adult care for every family member, from infants and teens to parents and grandparents. She sees many patients come into the office with complaints about a head injury and concerns about a concussion. She addresses some of the frequently asked questions here. 

What exactly is a concussion?

Dr. Ball described a concussion as a type of traumatic brain injury (sometimes called a TBI) caused by a bump to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the brain to rapidly move back and forth. This sudden movement can create chemical changes in the brain and sometimes stretch or damage brain cells. 

Signs of a concussion usually appear within a few minutes or hours of a head injury. However, concussions often occur without loss of consciousness, so it’s important to look out for any problems in the days following a head injury and seek guidance from a clinician. The harm inflicted by a concussion is often invisible, which makes professional input very important. Though head imaging is not required for diagnosis, a clinician may be able to see signs and symptoms that a patient or loved one cannot. 

“If you or your child sustain a head injury, I recommend a trip to the doctor,” Dr. Ball encourages. “While it may seem overcautious, you can never be too careful when it comes to your brain.” 

How serious is a concussion?

Although you may hear concussions described as “mild” brain injuries, the effects can be quite serious, and in some cases, lethal. With repeated head injuries, people can develop Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy(or CTE), which is a progressive degenerative disease affecting people who have suffered repeated concussions. There is currently no treatment available to those with CTE. 

“It’s critical that people understand concussions can be fatal,” Dr. Ball emphasizes. “If someone has a concussion and they go back out to play a sport, for instance, and sustain repeated concussions before they’ve healed, you can see cumulative brain injury possibly evolving into CTE – symptoms that we often can’t diagnose until the patient is already seriously injured.” 

How can I prevent a concussion?

Especially with children who may have concussions from sport-related injuries, prevention can be difficult as they often desire to get back in the game. However, concussion prevention requires parents and coaches ensuring that standards and protocol are met to prevent future injury. Dr. Ball recommends keeping anyone who has a head injury on the sidelines, erring on the side of caution, and following any “return to play” and “return to learn” protocol guidelines, which differ by school district. 

“It’s important that parents respect the decision to keep their child out of the game until they’ve been cleared,” Dr. Ball notes. “There may be parents who don’t think concussions are a big deal or want their child to succeed at their sport but if they return without healing, the consequences could be serious.” 

When should I seek medical attention for a head injury?

Dr. Ball recommends looking out for the following symptoms after a head injury: 

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling off-balance
  • Blurred vision
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Mental fog and fatigue
  • Memory lapses
  • Light and sound sensitivity
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Emotional reactions disproportionate to the circumstances

As soon as a head injury is apparent, even if the above symptoms are absent, it is worth going to the doctor to be examined. Establishing a baseline to evaluate the severity of a head injury and track any future symptoms is very useful.