Signs and Symptoms to Look for After Head Trauma

Know What to Identify

Woman sitting on ground with paramedics
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If someone has just been in an accident and you suspect head, neck, or spine injury, it is essential to always call 911 immediately. As long as the injury victim is not in immediate danger of further injury, do not move the person because you can make their injuries much worse.

The signs and symptoms of a head injury depend on the severity of the trauma, and which structures of the face and head are affected.

Some signs you can see, and other signs you can’t see.

When emergency personnel arrive they will assess the situation and many times immobilize the accident victim.

What Do Medical Providers Look for?

Once the patient is stabilized, the entire head is checked for cuts, torn tissue, bleeding, and other soft tissue damage. Are the eyes protruding outward or have they sunk backward into the skull? Is there anything interfering with breathing through the nose and mouth? Are there broken bones to the face and skull?

The signs and symptoms of traumatic brain injury that have resulted from head trauma may be present right away or may take time to develop. These signs also depend on which part of the brain was damaged, and if there is bleeding under the skull and inside the brain.

Signs That Occur Right After Head Trauma

Loss of consciousness and/or disorientation are common after head trauma.

After a mild traumatic brain injury, there may be no loss of consciousness or it may only last a few minutes.

Mild confusion or disorientation may also be experienced.

Loss of consciousness that lasts between one and 24 hours is often classified as a moderate brain injury. There may be amnesia, with no memory of what happened right before or after the head trauma occurred.

Any time someone is unconscious for over 24 hours after head trauma, it is considered a severe head injury.

Amnesia often lasts longer for these individuals, and they may never remember the events surrounding the traumatic event.

The Difference Between Focal and Diffuse Symptoms

Focal brain damage happens to a limited and focused area of the brain. It’s easier to predict what types of signs and symptoms will develop because modern medicine knows what each area of the brain controls.

For example, damage to an area that controls vision may cause predictable changes in how someone sees. Damage to the language area of the brain can result in difficulty speaking.

When head injury causes diffuse damage to the brain, it’s more difficult to predict what types of symptoms will develop. Diffuse injuries are diffused throughout the brain tissue, with microscopic damage to nerve cells (neurons) in the brain interfering with the normal flow of signals.

There are specialists who understand these types of injures and conduct in-depth follow up tests so the right treatments can be prescribed.

Most Common Head Trauma Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of head trauma affect everything from control over body functions, to emotions, physical movement and sensing the environment:

Changes in Cognition

            Ability to Concentrate


            Controlling impulses

            Paying attention

            Making good decisions

            Thinking critically and figuring things out

Sensory Symptoms

            Vision impairments, difficulty focusing the eyes

            Hearing problems

            Changes to, or loss of smell

            Taste disturbances

            Altered touch sensations

            Pain, heat, cold perception changes

            Difficulty feeling the body’s position in space

Physical Symptoms

            Inability to control fine motor movements

            Trouble walking and maintaining balance

            Difficulty controlling the bowels or bladder




            Sexual dysfunction    

Psycho-social symptoms       

            Mood swings

            Changes in personality

            Irritability and anger

            Difficulty controlling emotions, emotional outbursts


            Losing one’s sense of inhibition

            Personality changes          

Other changes




Progression of Signs and Symptoms

Head trauma and brain injury cause very complex symptoms that require special medical intervention, rehabilitation and follow up. The good news is that the brain has an amazing ability to heal, recover and find new ways learning. This is called brain plasticity.

Getting medical help as soon as possible after a head trauma improves long term outcomes. Remember, any time you suspect head, neck or spine trauma you need to call 911. It's always best to err on the side of caution.


Foster, A. M., Armstrong, J., Buckley, A., Sherry, J., Young, T., Foliaki, S., & ... Mcpherson, K. M. (2012). Encouraging family engagement in the rehabilitation process: a rehabilitation provider's development of support strategies for family members of people with traumatic brain injury. Disability & Rehabilitation, 34(22), 1855-1862. doi:10.3109/09638288.2012.670028

Ta'eed, G., Skilbeck, C. E., & Slatyer, M. (2013). Which Factors Determine Who is Referred for Community Rehabilitation Following Traumatic Brain Injury?. Brain Impairment, 14(2), 222-234. doi:10.1017/BrImp.2013.21

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