Head injury and concussion

The term 'head injury' covers cuts and bruises to the scalp as well as injury to the brain, which is known as Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI.

Your brain is protected by your scalp and the bones of the skull, and is cushioned by lining layers of tissue and the spinal fluid inside your skull.

If you get hit hard, or are shaken forcefully, your brain can bounce around inside and be bruised by the hard bone of your skull. This can cause a bruise in the brain, and damage to nerve fibres and blood vessels.

If bleeding or a blood clot results, this can be serious. Sometimes bleeding starts hours after the injury.

Causes of head injury

Head injuries can happen in many different ways, such as:

  • being hit on the head
  • car or bike accidents
  • falls around the home (especially for toddlers and older people)
  • shaking a baby.

If you injure your head, your neck will probably be hurt as well.

What to do after a head injury

If you or a family member suffers a head injury, there may be no immediate symptoms – no loss of consciousness and no signs of injury on your head or face.

However, it’s very important to carefully monitor a person who has had a head injury, as symptoms may develop later.

If the person is unconscious or is unable to move all or some of their limbs, or is complaining of neck pain:

  • Call 111 immediately
  • Do not move the person (unless it’s dangerous to leave them where they are).

When to see a doctor

Take the person to a doctor as soon as possible if they lose consciousness (even for a moment) or have symptoms of concussion.

Remember that these symptoms may develop some time after the injury.

Head injury and concussion

The term 'head injury' covers cuts and bruises to the scalp as well as injury to the brain, which is known as Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI. You can search for more information from the Health Navigator web pages and from the ACC website.

Symptoms of concussion

If the person has any of the following symptoms, they may have concussion:

  • not remembering what happened immediately before or after the injury
  • confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • loss of judgement and coordination, walking unsteadily, dizziness
  • slurred speech
  • headache that lasts a long time or gets worse
  • vomiting or nausea
  • ringing in their ears
  • pupils of their eyes being different sizes
  • changes in vision (what they can see)
  • becoming sensitive to light
  • loss of smell or taste.

Children may be irritable, sleepy and generally ‘not themselves’.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Post-concussion syndrome

Some symptoms continue for several weeks. This is called post-concussion syndrome.

Symptoms of post-concussion syndrome include:

  • forgetfulness
  • trouble concentrating
  • personality changes
  • headaches
  • tiredness
  • not being able to sleep or being very sleepy.

The person might need time off work and should avoid activities (like sport) that could cause another injury.

Avoiding another injury

A second injury to the head of a concussed person can be very dangerous. It can cause brain swelling, coma or death. Serious or long-term effects are much more likely if a brain injury is repeated.

Returning to sports

ACC guidelines say that a person who has had concussion should not play sport or train for 3 weeks after the injury.

After this time you can play or train if you have no symptoms of your injury and your doctor has said you can.

Self care

If you or a family member has a minor head injury with no worrying symptoms, try these ideas. If you have any concerns at all, see your doctor.

  • Apply ice or a cool pack for 10 to 20 minutes, every two to four hours, for the next day or two. (Wrapped ice or a pack of frozen vegetables will work well.) This will reduce swelling of the scalp and help with the pain.
  • Drink only clear fluids for the first 2 hours, to decrease the likelihood of vomiting.
  • Take nothing stronger than paracetamol for pain.
  • Rest – someone must stay with the injured person if they sleep.
  • Check every 2 hours to see if the person wakes easily (if asleep) and responds normally; that their behaviour and movements are normal; and that they know who they are and where they are.
  • A responsible person should stay with the person for 48 hours after the injury.
  • The injured person shouldn’t drink any alcohol for 24 hours.
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