Concussions FAQs: Symptoms, Treatment and Recovery

It can be thrilling to watch your child play sports. But when there is a collision with another player or a hard fall, joy can quickly turn to concern, especially when the head is involved.

Although concussions are associated with sports, they can also result from a fall or a car or bicycle accident.

No matter the cause of a concussion, it’s important to understand the symptoms and the recovery that is required. UNC Health family and sports medicine doctor Justin A. Lee, MD, explains what you need to know.

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a brain injury that occurs when the brain shakes inside the skull as a result of a blow to the head or body. The shaking affects the function of neurons and causes disruptions in normal brain activity.

“Concussions are like snowflakes—they come in all shapes and sizes,” Dr. Lee says. “So, there are different treatment avenues depending on the patient.”

What are the symptoms of a concussion?

Concussion symptoms fall into four categories:

  • Physical symptoms, including headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, blurry vision, sensitivity to light and noise, balance issues and fatigue
  • Thinking symptoms, including an inability to think clearly or retain information and a feeling of slowness
  • Emotional symptoms, including rapid changes in mood, anxiety and sadness
  • Sleep symptoms, including an inability to fall asleep or major changes in sleep schedule

Symptoms may not appear right after an injury, and each person may have a different combination of symptoms. Because concussions can occur at any age, parents and caregivers should know the signs in babies and toddlers.

Dr. Lee says that some head injuries require immediate medical attention; if you experience an increasingly intense headache, loss of vision, seizures, increasing drowsiness, loss of consciousness, memory loss or speech issues, go to an emergency department. Otherwise, it’s appropriate to visit a primary care physician or a sports medicine physician for a neurological exam and to receive guidance on treatment.

What is the treatment for a concussion?

“We recommend 24 to 72 hours of rest, and then we encourage the person to return to their normal routine,” Dr. Lee says, noting that healthy habits such as having a good sleep schedule, eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water are important to recovery.

Although athletes may not be able to return to practice or games until they receive medical clearance, “we get people moving sooner rather than later,” Dr. Lee says. “Even if it’s just a walk around the neighborhood, physical activity helps people get better.”

Your care team may recommend physical therapy, vestibular rehabilitation or vision therapy to help with symptoms such as neck pain, balance issues, dizziness, blurred vision and headaches.

Can I go to school or work with a concussion?

Dr. Lee encourages people to return to work or school after a few days of rest.

“We’ll look at accommodations that can help, such as sunglasses or earplugs to help with sensitivity issues, additional time for homework, and scheduled breaks,” he says. “People should take rest breaks as needed, but they should be working toward a return to normal daily life.”

That includes the use of screens; though Dr. Lee recommends avoiding phones and computers immediately after an injury, you can begin using them again in a few days, with breaks if symptoms worsen.

Can I drive with a concussion?

Don’t drive for the first 24 hours, Dr. Lee says. After that, it depends on how you feel and whether symptoms might affect safety while driving. For example, if you experience light sensitivity, you may want to avoid driving at night when headlights are on.

Can I go to sleep with a concussion?

As long as you are not experiencing any symptoms that require immediate medical attention, it is safe to sleep after a concussion. In fact, sleep and rest are important parts of recovery from a concussion.

Can I fly with a concussion?

Dr. Lee says a person’s symptoms will dictate whether it’s OK to fly.

“If you are still feeling dazed or dizzy or nauseous, and the idea of flying makes you feel worse, don’t fly. If you’re feeling better, it’s safe to fly,” he says. “Flying won’t make the concussion worse, but it may make some of the symptoms feel worse in the short term.”

How long does it take to recover from a concussion?

Everyone’s recovery from a concussion is different. For some people, symptoms resolve in a matter of days, while for others, it may take as long as a year. Dr. Lee says that most adults feel better in two weeks, while younger people typically take four weeks.

If symptoms don’t resolve within four weeks, return to your physician. When recovery takes a long time, “we sometimes uncover another issue that’s been undiagnosed, such as anxiety, depression, a learning disability or ADHD,” Dr. Lee says.

Most people do not experience long-term effects from a single concussion. It’s important, however, to allow a concussion to completely heal before returning to sports. Second-impact syndrome, which is when you experience a second head injury while still dealing with symptoms of a concussion, can cause brain swelling and death. Second-impact syndrome is rare, but the risk is why return-to-play guidelines exist in sports.

To learn more about concussions, visit UNC Health’s sports concussion page or talk to your primary care provider or a sports medicine physician. Need a doctor? Find one near you.