Ask any sports fan, and he’ll tell you autumn means one thing: football.
High school ball on Friday. College games on Saturday. NFL on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday. Weekend games in the park. Fantasy football…pretty much all the time.
But once football season starts up, it also marks the time of year when news of concussions and head injuries jump into the spotlight.
And while your friendly pickup game is probably just that, what happens when your friend mistakes your head for the pigskin and (accidentally, of course) pummels it into the earth with a little too much gusto? What if you come home from a game feeling foggy and nauseated? Would you know what to do?
Because here’s the thing: There’s a big difference between a bump on the head and major brain trauma. Yet of the 3.8 million concussions that occur in the U.S. each year during competitive and recreational activities, as many as 50% go unreported, according to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
To keep you from falling in that 50%, we talked to two head injury experts who helped us identify the symptoms you should look for if you suspect you’ve suffered a concussion.
1. You Feel Foggy
The vestibular system is responsible for the brain’s ability to interpret movement. If this area is disrupted, symptoms can include feeling foggy, disassociated, and detached. Michael Lee, M.D., of Concussion Specialists of Connecticut, describes it as the brain “acting like a computer with a virus infection” or “like your head is under water.” Fogginess is a subtlety that most people can’t describe, but the symptom he finds most helpful in diagnosing patients.
The immediate sensation is a slow waving dizziness, which Michael Collins, Ph.D., director of the the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Program, says is the on-field symptom that best predicts the longest recovery time (at least a month). While fewer than 10% of sports-related concussions involve a black out, individuals who suffer them actually recover the fastest.
2. You can’t remember the details
If you’re having trouble remembering what happened in the time that preceded the injury, if you’re losing your train of thought, or if you feel slowed down, these all could be signs of a concussion, says Lee.
Likewise, Collins says that if an individual is slow to respond to things or keeps repeating himself, those are telltale signs of concussion.
3. Your vision is blurred
If you have difficulty bringing your eyes together, coordinating your movements, and/or processing images, these are signs of an ocular concussion.
What’s more, some patients are more at risk for certain symptoms, says Collins. For example, individuals who have or have had a lazy eye are more susceptible to ocular symptoms.
4. Your neck hurts
“Individuals can sometimes have numbness or tingling in the arms and legs, especially if [the concussion is part of] a neck injury,” says Lee.
5. Your head feels “full”
Migraines associated with concussions tend to be more severe than typical migraines. People generally describe the pain as a pressure-type feeling, or a sensation of fullness, says Collins. Nausea and/or vomiting typically accompany migraines; seek medical care immediately if you or a friend is repeatedly vomiting after potentially suffering a concussion.
6. You feel anxious
Be perceptive of changes in your personality or mood after a hit to the head. Concussion indicators include heightened anxiety, irritability, and feeing over-emotional.
What to do if you’ve suffered a concussion
The most important thing to do if you suspect you’ve endured a concussion is to get yourself out of the game—think of a concussion as if it was a pulled muscle, advises Lee. “What a pulled muscle is is damaged muscle cells in the muscle; a concussion is damaged brain cells in the brain, and if you try to do cognitive activities or even exercise, you further damage those muscles,” he explains.
Then get yourself to a clinician or a specialist who is trained to treat concussions. “Just because you’re a neurologist and have a white coat on doesn’t mean you know how to manage a concussion,” notes Collins.