What is a concussion?

A concussion is a form of a traumatic brain injury that happens when the brain is shaken within the skull. Concussion is also known as mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) but it does not typically result in structural brain injury identified on diagnostic imaging such as CT or MRI scans. The term mild does not diminish the impacts that concussion can have on your health and activities of daily living (ADLs).

While the majority of people recover within one month, in some cases symptoms resolve more slowly or may persist longer than expected. Prompt medical assessment and management can help diagnose concussions and ensure patients are provided with proper education and guidance as well as treatment as needed.

If you have suffered any trauma to your head and/or whiplash, and you experience symptoms of concussion, it is important to seek medical help. This includes if you have been in a traumatic accident; assaulted; fallen; or injured playing sports. National concussion guidelines recommend that all those with a suspected concussion undergo prompt medical assessment by a physician or nurse practitioner.

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Signs of a concussion

The following symptoms can occur after a concussion [1].

Please note: Most people will not experience all symptoms – but if you are experiencing symptoms after a physical injury, visit your doctor.

  • Headache/migraine
  • Dizziness and balance problems
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Vision changes
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Seizure
  • Problems with smell/taste
  • Foggy-feeling
  • Difficulty remembering and focusing
  • Slower information processing
  • Trouble thinking clearly or finding your words
  • Difficulty making decisions or plans
  • Behavioural changes like depression, anxiety, irritability, aggression, or impulsivity

Who can diagnose a concussion?

There is no formal test to officially diagnose a concussion. A registered doctor or nurse practitioner are the medical professionals qualified to assess your symptoms to determine if you have a concussion.

Please note: there are some exceptions to this in Quebec and Manitoba. In Quebec, nurse practitioners are not able to make a concussion diagnosis. In Manitoba, physician assistants are licensed for medical assessments [2].

When to seek medical attention

You should see a doctor right away if you or someone you are caring for is experiencing the following symptoms after a traumatic event.

  • Significant neck pain or tenderness immediately after the injury
  • Double vision
  • Seizure or convulsion
  • Weakness or tingling/burning in arms and legs
  • Severe or increasing headache
  • Deteriorating conscious state
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Increase in restlessness, agitation or combative behaviour

If the person is experiencing these symptoms in extremes, call 911 and use emergency services.

For more information on treatment pathways after someone has sustained a concussion, see the full chart on the Concussion Awareness Training Tool. The difficulty with a concussion is that you may not recognize you have one right away. If you are experiencing symptoms of a concussion after an accident, instance of assault, or serious hit during sports, make an appointment to see a doctor.

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