Concussion diagnostic exams
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury. Anyone of any age can get a concussion, but it’s more common in athletes. Concussion can range from mild to severe, and symptoms vary depending on the severity. Concussions are usually diagnosed based on symptoms and severity of injury.
How to diagnose a concussion
People often ask how to tell if you have a concussion. While there are some signs and symptoms that may indicate someone has a concussion, it can only be diagnosed by a medical professional.
There are a few different exams and tests that can help diagnose a concussion.
- Neurological exams – A neurological exam to help diagnose a concussion may include physical tests to make sure your brain is working as it should. Your doctor may test your strength, reflexes, coordination, balance, hearing, nerve function, ability to feel (sensation), and mental status.
- Cognitive testing –This type of testing helps evaluate your cognitive skills, which is another way to say your ability to think. Cognitive testing may evaluate your memory, recall ability, and concentration.
- Imaging – A concussion itself won’t show up on brain imaging tests, but if you have certain symptoms (like severe headaches, vomiting, or seizures), your doctor may order an MRI or CT of your head to check for visible injury, such as bleeding in the brain.
- A CT scan is the most commonly used test to evaluate the brain right after an injury.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may help doctors diagnose complications of your head injury. It can also help identify changes in your brain that could be due to the trauma.
- Eye exams – Your doctor may do some eye exams to check for signs of concussion or neurological damage.
Most concussed patients will recover within 3 weeks. If symptoms persist beyond the expected recovery timeline, the patient will be referred to a neurologist and / or a specialist who treats post-concussive syndrome.
When to see a doctor after a head injury
You should always see your doctor or another medical professional trained to identify concussion symptoms after any type of head injury to assess whether you have a concussion.
There are times when you should seek immediate medical attention after a head injury. If you experience any of the following symptoms, either right after your injury or in the days or weeks after it, see your doctor right away.
- Losing consciousness or “passing out”
- Mental confusion, an altered mental state, or difficulty answering questions
- Seizures or convulsions
- Severe headache
- Weakness in your arms or legs
- New bleeding
- Hearing loss in one or both ears
What to do if your child may have a concussion
If your child has a head injury during an athletic event, you should immediately remove him or her from play – even if it’s just during a practice. Concussions are serious and should never be shrugged off. If your child continues to play after a concussion, it can increase the risk of severe brain injury and even death, and it can make the symptoms worse. You won’t be able to diagnose a concussion yourself, but you should take precautions after any head injury to protect your child – even if it seems minor. This is true whether your child was wearing a helmet or not.
Get them to a doctor
Anytime a child has a potential head injury or concussion, you should seek an evaluation by a healthcare professional who has expertise in diagnosing concussions. Call your child’s doctor, explain the injury, and ask for next steps. If your child has any of the symptoms listed above, take him or her to the emergency room.
Give them time to rest
It’s important to have your child rest and recover after a concussion. This is crucial to prevent further damage to the brain. Repeated concussions in children have a cumulative effect, meaning the damage continues to get worse after each concussion. Fortunately, most children who have one concussion will recover completely – but only if they rest and discontinue contact sports for as long as the doctor recommends. Recovery is important because concussions lead to a period of changed brain function. During this time, the brain is more susceptible to being severely or permanently injured. If your child gets a second concussion during the period of altered brain function, the chances of severe injury are much greater.
The main thing to remember is that no matter how severe the first concussion is, it’s imperative for you to take your child to a concussion expert and follow that doctor’s recommendations regarding the length of time your child must refrain from participating in sports or other activities that could lead to head injury. Just wearing a helmet isn’t enough. Your child needs to sit the activities out until cleared by the doctor to return.
Learn more about caring for a child who has a concussion.
After a head injury, even if it seems minor, there are things you should do to check for a concussion. There are also post-concussion care standards you should follow. Every person’s concussion requires an individualized care plan. A concussion protocol isn’t a care plan, but rather, it’s a general guideline about what to do after a head injury to diagnose and care for a concussion. It helps all team members (from patient and family to coaches to healthcare providers) be on the same page about post-concussion care.
Who should have a concussion protocol?
Any organization that involves people at risk for a concussion should have a concussion protocol. This could be sports teams, health clubs or gyms, work places, hospitals, park districts, summer camps, schools – anywhere children or adults may be at risk for falls, accidents, or head injuries.
Who should be involved in the concussion protocol?
The people involved in concussion protocols will depend on the setting. For example, a work place probably won’t have an athletic trainer, but a high school, college, or professional sports team probably will.
People involved in post-concussion care may include:
- A doctor, nurse, or other trained healthcare provider
- An athletic trainer
- A school nurse
- A teacher or teachers
- Physical therapists, occupational therapists, or other non-physician rehabilitation professionals
What does a concussion protocol involve?
There may be laws in your state that guide concussion protocols, but generally, they should include:
- A definition of a concussion
- Education about what a concussion is and how to recognize it (signs, symptoms, etc.)
- Pre-season baseline testing for athletes
- Information about removal from activity after an injury
- On-location/sideline assessment procedures
- Clinical evaluation process
- Any adjustments necessary for academics
- Information about when to return to sports, school, or other activities
If you have had a head injury or have been diagnosed with a concussion (or multiple concussions), Beaumont neurologists can help. Our neurology department is staffed with concussion experts who can work with you after your head injury to improve your chances of a good outcome.
Beaumont Health’s specialized neurology centers connect you with the specialists you need, in one place, at one time – whether you need a neurological exam or more specialized services.
Call 800-633-7377 today to make an appointment to see a Beaumont neurologist.