There’s a good chance you may not know the answers, according to a recent online survey commissioned by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Fewer than half of respondents knew what to do if someone gets a concussion or how to recognize symptoms. Physicians like Dr. Tina Atkinson are working to change that. She’s a founding member of Concussion Nova Scotia and the sports medicine physician for the Halifax Mooseheads.
“We want people to know the basic signs of concussion, and if you suspect a concussion you know what to do and you’re able to self-manage before you see a physician or nurse practitioner,” she says.
Concussions can happen suddenly, and not just in collision sports. “Weekend warriors” overdoing it at the rink, kids zipping down a toboggan hill and people walking on icy sidewalks are all at risk this time of year.
Concussions can present through a variety of signs and symptoms.
- Physical: headache, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, blurred vision, ears ringing, problems balancing, sensitivity to light or sound, or feeling tired, drowsy or “just not right”
- Cognitive: memory problems, difficulty concentrating, not being able to think clearly or feeling slowed down
- Emotional: feeling sad, nervous, anxious or more easily angered
- Sleep-related: having a hard time falling asleep or sleeping a lot more or less than usual
Dr. Atkinson cautions against misconceptions: You don’t have to lose consciousness or receive a direct hit to the head for it to be a concussion. There are tools available now like the Concussion Recognition Tool 5 (CRT5), which has steps to help identify signs and symptoms in children, youth and adults.
There are real risks to coming back to full activity before recovery, including worsening symptoms and second-impact syndrome, which can occur if you have another impact to the head. Although each concussion is different, typical recovery can take up to three weeks for an average adult and up to four weeks or more for children and youth. (The Concussion Nova Scotia website has great resources on strategies for returning to school, work and sport.)
Some concussions can be self-managed with a period of rest (24 to 48 hours) for the body and brain—including time off from work, school, sports, driving, reading, using screens or drinking alcohol—followed by a gradual return to activity. After a period of rest, “getting out and walking actually helps calm down some of the symptoms.”
Dr. Atkinson recommends seeing a health care provider familiar with concussion treatment for follow-up assessment and care before returning to sports or more intense work or school situations.
If symptoms get worse—decreasing levels of consciousness, increasing headache, severe personality change or no improvement after several days of rest—seek immediate medical care. If a child has been diagnosed with a concussion and shows any of these symptoms, or has vomited more than twice, has had seizures or difficulty walking, or seems more confused, take them to the emergency room right away.