How Concussions Are Treated

Athletes in some sports are susceptible to head injuries.
Athletes in some sports are susceptible to head injuries. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

For an injury that can be tricky to diagnose, treating a concussion is surprisingly straightforward. There's no medication required, although Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) can help if there's a headache. Sometimes after a head injury, an overnight stay in the hospital for observation is advisable, but it's rarely necessary.

And only a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) would require an intervention such as surgery.

In fact, the most effective prescription for a concussion is rest—total rest. For some people that may be easier said than done, but by giving both the body and brain an extended time-out, the damage caused by a concussion will heal. 

Physical Rest

This is especially important for athletes who may be tempted to go right back onto the field after sustaining a blow to the head. Even a few seconds of feeling stunned or dizzy can indicate damage to the brain, and so it's vital to stay on the sidelines until testing indicates it's OK to get back into the game.

This is especially important for someone who's had a concussion in the past. Repeat concussions can cause serious and lasting problems, especially if a second concussion occurs before the full recovery from a first. Repeated concussions not only increase the risk of further concussion but have been associated with early-onset dementia.

This advice holds true for non-athletes as well, but regardless of what you were doing when you sustained an injury that led to a concussion, it's important to avoid any physical activities that could put you at risk of a second head injury.

This means, for example, if you tripped down the stairs and sustained a concussion after banging your head on the banister you should probably stay off your bicycle (or your ice skates or your snow skis) until you're fully healed and you get a green light from your doctor.

When you do resume normal activity, ease back in. Athletes often start with light aerobic exercise, for example, before moving on to sport-exercises and non-contact drills, and finally practicing with contact before returning to competition.

Cognitive Rest

For many folks, this may be even tougher to do, but the only way to give the brain the opportunity to truly repair itself is to use it as little as possible—what is often referred to as cognitive rest. This usually means no reading, no homework, no texting, surfing the Internet, playing video games, or watching television. Even listening to music can tax the brain. You likely will be advised to stay home from school or work while recovering from a concussion.

How long you'll need to rest your body and brain will depend on how serious your concussion is and what your doctor determines is necessary. One thing that is certain is that there's no rushing recovering from a concussion. The Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) says this process can be very uneven. A person who's on the mend from a concussion is likely to have days during which he or she feels better than others.

On such good days the temptation is often to try to "do more" in order to make up ahead of time for the next "bad day," but that approach is likely to slow down the rate of recovery, according to the BIAA.

And when you do resume your regular activities, you'll need to take it slow: Work for only half days, for example, or temporarily move to a desk in your classroom or your office where the light is dimmer and there is less noise and activity.

It also will be important to get enough sleep, steer clear of alcohol, lay off the cigarettes if you smoke, drink plenty of water, and eat well—sound advice that may leave you stronger and healthier overall.

Sources:

American Academy of Neurology. "Position Statement on Sports Concussion." Nov 1, 2010.

Brain Injury Association of America. "How Long Will It Take Me to Recover From a Concussion?" 2018.