When you injure yourself, it's usually obvious. If you scrape your knee or break your arm, there will be bleeding, bruising, or swelling to show that some part of your body has been damaged.
But when you hurt your brain — what doctors call a brain injury or concussion — there's often nothing to see. That can be a little scary because brain injuries can be far more serious than a scrape or broken bone.
People hit their heads all the time — during sports, car accidents, and falls. Most of the time, the injuries aren't serious, but it can be hard to know for sure. That's why every head injury should be treated like a serious injury until a doctor says it's not.
Signs of a Concussion
If you hit your head and think you might have a concussion, see a doctor right away.
How do you know when it's time to call a doctor? Here are some signs you might have a concussion:
- You feel dizzy after bumping your head, and it goes on for more than a couple of minutes.
- You have a headache that goes on for more than a few minutes.
- Things look blurry or you have trouble focusing.
- You throw up or feel like throwing up.
- You have trouble with balance and coordination (things like not being able to catch a ball or walk in a straight line).
- You have a hard time concentrating, thinking, or making decisions.
- You have trouble speaking or you say things that don't make sense.
- You feel confused, sleepy, grouchy, sad, or emotional for no reason.
You don't have to pass out to have a concussion — in fact, most people who get concussions don't pass out. But if you do pass out after hitting your head, you need to get checked out.
Sometimes a concussion is an emergency. If someone you're with has any of these problems, call 911 or get the person to a hospital emergency room right away:
- The person passed out and can't be woken up.
- The person has seizures.
- The person's speech is slurred.
- The person seems to be getting more confused, restless, sleepy, or agitated.
- The person has thrown up more than once.
- The person has a headache that gets worse or won't go away.
What Will the Doctor Do?
If you have any worries about a head injury, don't take chances — get medical treatment. An undiagnosed concussion can lead to brain damage and mental disability, while proper treatment will help you recover.
To diagnose a concussion, the doctor will ask how and when your injury happened. He or she will want to hear about your symptoms; for example, if you have a headache or trouble focusing. The doctor might ask questions to test your memory and concentration ("Who are you?"/"Where are you?"/"What day is it?").
The doctor will check your nervous system by testing your balance, coordination, nerve function, and reflexes. To look for problems around the brain, doctors sometimes order scans like CT (CAT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
If a concussion is serious, a doctor might send you to a hospital for treatment. Otherwise, the doctor will teach you how to take care of yourself at home. That usually means getting plenty of rest and avoiding some activities. What you can and can't do depends on your concussion, but you might have to stay home from school or limit the schoolwork and homework you can do.
If you hurt your head while playing a sport, stop playing immediately. Your coach should take you off the field. But if you don't have a coach, or your coach doesn't pull you from play, take yourself out of the game.
If you're skiing or snowboarding, get the ski patrol to help you down the hill. If you're skateboarding or biking, stop riding. Don't take a chance on hurting your head again.
A second head injury can lead to a condition called second-impact syndrome. Second-impact syndrome doesn't happen very often, but it can cause lasting brain damage and even death.
The First Few Days
If you hit your head but didn't see a doctor, be on the lookout for signs of a concussion. They can take a few days to show up. If you notice signs of a concussion, even if it's been a couple of days since you hit your head, see a doctor right away.
Here are some of the things that might be signs of a concussion if they've been happening in the days after a head injury:
- feeling sick or throwing up
- difficulty with coordination or balance
- blurred vision
- slurred speech or saying things that don't make sense
- feeling confused and dazed
- difficulty concentrating, thinking, or making decisions
- trouble remembering things
- feeling sleepy
- having trouble falling asleep
- sleeping more or less than usual
- feeling anxious or irritable for no apparent reason
- feeling sad or more emotional than usual
If a doctor sends you home to get well instead of to a hospital, stay alert for danger signs. Here are some signs of a serious problem:
- You have a headache that gets worse quickly.
- You feel like you're getting more and more confused.
- You keep vomiting.
If you notice these problems — or any other changes that worry you — always call the doctor.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015