Concussion symptoms, signs and remedies: How to spot and treat a concussion

Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom sustained a concussion in January after being elbowed in the face during a game. (Photo: Comcast Sportsnet)

On many occasions, a person who sustains a concussion will have little to no superficial signs or scars of their wound.

That's what makes these head injuries so scary - all of the damage is taking place inside the skull. That's what makes concussions so dangerous and it's why a renewed effort to diagnose and treat head injuries, from youth leagues to the amateur ranks and all the way up to professional sports, is well underway.

But what is a concussion? How is it sustained? How is it treated?

A blow to the head

A concussion is an injury sustained after a sudden, usually unexpected, blow to the head causes the brain to jar or shake, causing it to move around or hit the side of the skull. WebMD says that the fluid around your brain is designed to act as a cushion between the soft tissue of the organ and the hard sides of the skull.

However, a sudden blow to the head can still cause the brain to move, regardless of the fluid.

Falling unconscious or passing out is not a surefire way to determine whether or not someone has a concussion. In fact, many people who suffer mild or moderate head injuries never lose consciousness.

The most popular and commonly used way to measure a concussion's severity is placing it on a scale from 1-3. In 1986, Dr. Robert Cantu, a Massachusetts-based neurosurgeon, developed the three-grade method of determining how bad a head injury is.

Cantu's scale ranges from Grade 1 (mild, no loss of consciousness, little amnesia) to Grade 3 (severe, prolonged loss of consciousness, severe amnesia).

Signs and symptoms

The Mayo Clinic, amongst doctors and experts worldwide, all agree that concussion symptoms are not always immediately apparent. Sometimes, they take time to surface, depending on the severity of the head injury.

However, most all people who sustain concussions will, to some degree, suffer from headaches, amnesia or confusion. Some patients will not be able to immediately remember how or why they were hit in the head.

Other symptoms, which vary in degree and severity, can include the loss of consciousness, dizziness, nausea, ringing in the ears and fatigue. People who suffer from concussions may also develop a sensitivity to light and sound, along with an inability to sleep.

Doctors say that everyone, especially children, should be treated and seen by a doctor as soon as possible if any of those symptoms are presented.

Concussion treatment

There is no cure-all for a concussion. In fact, most doctors say that rest and down time are the most effective ways to recover from the effects of a concussion.

Doctors recommend that concussion patients get as much sleep as possible and avoid alcohol, drugs or certain medications. Physically and mentally demanding activities, including any form of exercise, should be avoided, as should extended computer use.

The recovery time for a concussion greatly varies. Some people feel fine a few hours after their head injury. For some, it takes a week, while for others, it can take much longer. It's important to note that the slightest disturbance or blow to the head during recovery can exacerbate the injury or cause symptoms to come back.

Post-concussion syndrome

In some of the most severe cases, or potentially after repeated concussions, doctors have been on the lookout for symptoms of post-concussion syndrome.

The Mayo Clinic defines post-concussion syndrome as a combination of several concussion-related symptoms - headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, etc. - that linger for weeks or months after the original head injury.

Doctors say that in some cases, the severity of the original concussion is a moot point; post-concussion syndrome can appear in patients who suffer mild, moderate and severe concussions.