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Concussion – Mild traumatic brain injury: Care instructions

Concussion – Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

Care instructions

What is a concussion?

A concussion, also called a mild traumatic brain injury, is a head injury. It happens when your brain gets shaken inside your skull from a hit (blow) to your head or when your head and neck jerk when your body is hit.

Common causes of a concussion are falls, sports, physical assaults (fights), and motor vehicle collisions.

With a concussion, your brain’s nerve fibers get injured, which affects how your brain normally works. In most cases, you cannot see this injury on tests such as a CT scan or MRI.

You don't have to pass out (lose consciousness) to have a concussion. Some people have symptoms of a concussion, but others don't.

Signs of serious brain injury

Signs of a more serious brain injury will usually show up in the first 24 to 48 hours.

Call 911 or go to the hospital right away if you have any of the following:

  • You won’t wake up or are very hard to wake up.
  • You become more confused, restless, or agitated.
  • You become less alert.
  • You have the worst headache you’ve ever had, and pain medicine (such as Tylenol) isn’t helping.
  • You have blood or fluid coming from your nose or ears.
  • You have bruising around your eyes or ears.
  • You have loss of vision, blurry vision, or double vision.
  • You have slurred speech or trouble speaking.
  • You have sudden weakness on 1 side of your body.
  • You throw up 3 or more times.
  • You have seizure activity, such as making abnormal movements, passing out, losing control of your bowels or bladder.

First 48 hours

Have someone stay with you for the first 24 hours after the concussion, and use the advice below to manage your symptoms, be safe, and start recovering.

Rest and sleep

  • Rest for the first 24 hours. It's one of the best things to help your brain recover. It’s okay to sleep if you want.
  • You usually don’t need to have someone wake you every few hours. If your doctor has asked for this, you should be easy to wake up and not show any of the signs of serious brain injury listed above. If you do, call 911 or go to the hospital right away.
  • Do some light physical activity (such as housework) or light exercise (such as walking, stationary bike, swimming) as soon as it feels okay for you.

Diet

  • Start with clear fluids (such as apple juice or ginger ale) and slowly return to a normal diet.
  • Eat healthy meals and snacks throughout the day. Your brain needs energy to recover.

Managing pain

  • Take acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) for pain. Talk to your doctor about using products with ASA or NSAIDs in them (such as Aspirin) or ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin), as they can increase the risk of bleeding.
  • Put ice or a cold pack on the area of your head that hurts for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin.

Driving

  • A concussion can affect your concentration and reaction time. Ask your doctor when it’s safe for you to drive or operate heavy equipment.
  • Do not drive if you have vision problems, slowed thinking, slowed reaction time, reduced attention, or poor judgment.

Alcohol and drugs

  • Don’t drink alcohol or use other drugs (such as cannabis). They can make you feel worse and hide the warning signs of a serious brain injury.
  • Ask your doctor about prescription medicines while you’re recovering.

Sports and leisure

  • Stay away from activities that could cause another head injury (like sports), until the doctor says it’s okay. A second blow to the head can cause more damage to the brain.

Rest your brain

  • Rest your brain to recover. Limit activities such as reading, watching television, and playing video games for the first 48 hours. It may help to take time off school or work.
  • Limit bright lights, loud noises, and crowds for the first 48 hours. They can make your symptoms worse.

First 4 weeks

You will usually start feeling better in the first few weeks of a concussion. Use the advice below to manage your symptoms and be safe as you recover.

Symptoms

The symptoms below are common after a concussion. They usually get better on their own within a few weeks:

  • feeling tired or “slow”
  • problems falling or staying asleep
  • feeling confused, poor concentration, or slow to answer questions
  • feeling dizzy, poor balance, or poor coordination
  • being sensitive to light
  • being sensitive to sounds
  • ringing in the ears
  • headache, sometimes with nausea (feeling sick to your stomach) and throwing up
  • being irritable, having mood swings, or feeling sad or “down”

See a doctor if your symptoms are affecting your everyday activities. Remember that letting yourself get too tired can make your symptoms worse. Slowly do a little more activity every day if it feels okay for you. Listen to your body—if doing a certain activity makes your symptoms worse, take a break from it.

Rest and sleep

  • Get enough sleep to feel well rested. Napping during the day can help, but it is important that you can still sleep at night.

Relationships

  • It’s common for your symptoms to affect how you manage your emotions. You may be more irritable or have mood swings that affect your relationships.
  • See your doctor if you or your family are worried.

Driving

  • Don’t drive if you are concerned about your ability to drive safely.
  • Ask your doctor if you aren’t sure if you're medically ready to drive again.

Alcohol and drugs

  • Don’t drink alcohol or take sedatives (medicine that relaxes you) until your doctor has said it’s safe to do so.
  • Don’t use recreational drugs.

Work and school

  • Most people go back to some amount of work or school within a few days and go back full time in a few weeks. You will likely feel tired, so adjust your rest periods as needed.
  • Some people find it hard to concentrate. Return to your normal activities slowly. Go back to work or school for half days at first and add more time as it feels okay for you.
  • If you feel comfortable doing so, tell work or school about your concussion. You may have to adjust your activities.

Sports and leisure

  • If you play sports, tell your coach and teammates about your concussion. A doctor should be involved in the decision for your return to play.
  • To learn more about returning to play, go to Parachute Canada.

Medicine

  • Use medication as prescribed. Discuss with your doctor how to take medications going forward after your injury.

Recovery

  • Most people with concussion have a good recovery. Managing your symptoms well can help you recover faster.
  • Pacing and planning activity is the best way to recover from a concussion. You need to rest and gradually return to your daily activities. Do not try to do too much a once.
  • Each person’s recovery time is different. Most people will feel better within a couple of weeks, but sometimes symptoms last a few months.
  • Talk to your doctor if your symptoms haven’t improved after a few weeks.

If your symptoms get worse at any time or you have new symptoms from the above list, call your doctor or call Health Link at 811.

To see this information online and learn more, visit MyHealth.Alberta.ca/health/pages/conditions.aspx?Hwid=custom.ab_concussion_ac_adult.

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For 24/7 nurse advice and general health information call Health Link at 811.

Current as of: June 19, 2023

Author: Calgary Brain Injury Program, Alberta Health Services

This material is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified health professional. This material is intended for general information only and is provided on an "as is", "where is" basis. Although reasonable efforts were made to confirm the accuracy of the information, Alberta Health Services does not make any representation or warranty, express, implied or statutory, as to the accuracy, reliability, completeness, applicability or fitness for a particular purpose of such information. Alberta Health Services expressly disclaims all liability for the use of these materials, and for any claims, actions, demands or suits arising from such use.