Post-concussion syndrome is a complex disorder in which a variable combination of post-concussion symptoms — such as headaches and dizziness — last for weeks and sometimes months after the injury that caused the concussion.
Concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury, usually occurring after a blow to the head. Loss of consciousness isn't required for a diagnosis of concussion or post-concussion syndrome. In fact, the risk of post-concussion syndrome doesn't appear to be associated with the severity of the initial injury.
In most people, post-concussion syndrome symptoms occur within the first seven to 10 days and go away within three months, though they can persist for a year or more. Post-concussion syndrome treatments are aimed at easing specific symptoms.
Post-concussion symptoms include:
- Loss of concentration and memory
- Noise and light sensitivity
Headaches that occur after a concussion can vary and may feel like tension-type headaches or migraine headaches. Most, however, are tension-type headaches, which may be associated with a neck injury that happened at the same time as the head injury. In some cases, people experience behavior or emotional changes after a mild traumatic brain injury. Family members may notice that the person has become more irritable, suspicious, argumentative or stubborn.
See a doctor if you experience a head injury severe enough to cause confusion or amnesia — even if you never lost consciousness. If a concussion occurs while you're playing a sport, don't go back in the game. Seek medical attention so that you don't risk worsening your injury.
Some experts believe post-concussion symptoms are caused by structural damage to the brain or disruption of neurotransmitter systems, resulting from the impact that caused the concussion. Others believe post-concussion symptoms are related to psychological factors, especially since the most common symptoms — headache, dizziness and sleep problems — are similar to those often experienced by people diagnosed with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. In many cases, both physiological effects of brain trauma and emotional reactions to these effects play a role in the development of symptoms.
Researchers haven't determined why some people who've had concussions develop persistent post-concussion symptoms while others do not. No proven correlation between the severity of the injury and the likelihood of developing persistent post-concussion symptoms exists.
Risk factors for developing post-concussion syndrome include:
Age. Studies have found increasing age to be a risk factor for post-concussion syndrome.
Sex. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, but this may be because women are generally more likely to seek medical care.
Trauma. Concussions resulting from car collisions, falls, assaults and sports injuries are commonly associated with post-concussion syndrome.
No single test will prove you have post-concussion syndrome. Your doctor may want to order a scan of your brain to check for other potential problems that could be causing your symptoms. Computed tomography (CT) imaging is generally the preferred test for detecting brain abnormalities.
If you're experiencing a lot of dizziness, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in ear, nose and throat complaints. A referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist may be in order if your symptoms include anxiety or depression, or if you're having problems with memory or problem solving.
There is no specific treatment for post-concussion syndrome. Instead, your doctor will treat the individual symptoms you're experiencing. The types of symptoms and their frequency are unique to each person.
Medications commonly used for migraines or tension headaches, including some antidepressants, appear to be effective when these types of headaches are associated with post-concussion syndrome. Examples include:
Amitriptyline. This medication has been widely used for post-traumatic injuries, as well as for symptoms commonly associated with post-concussion syndrome, such as irritability, dizziness and depression.
Dihydroergotamine (D.H.E. 45) combined with metoclopramide (Reglan). These medications may provide relief for chronic headaches, but they must be administered intravenously in the hospital.
Keep in mind that the overuse of over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers may contribute to persistent post-concussion headaches.
Memory and thinking problems
No medications are currently recommended specifically for the treatment of cognitive problems after mild traumatic brain injury. Time may be the best therapy for post-concussion syndrome if you have cognitive problems, as most of them go away on their own in the weeks to months following the injury.
Certain forms of cognitive therapy may be helpful, including focused rehabilitation that provides training in how to use a pocket calendar, electronic organizer or other techniques to work around memory deficits and attention skills. Relaxation therapy may also help.
The symptoms of post-concussion syndrome often improve after the affected person learns that there is a cause for his or her symptoms, and that they will likely improve with time. Education about the disorder can ease a person's fears and help provide peace of mind. If you're experiencing new or increasing depression or anxiety after a concussion, some treatment options include:
Psychotherapy. It may be helpful to discuss your concerns with a psychologist or psychiatrist who has experience in working with people with brain injury.
The only known way to prevent post-concussion syndrome is to avoid the head injury in the first place.
Avoiding head injuries
Although you can't prepare for every potential situation, here are some tips for avoiding common causes of head injuries:
Fasten your seat belt whenever you're traveling in a car, and be sure children are in age-appropriate safety seats. Children under 13 are safest riding in the back seat, especially if your car has air bags.
Use helmets whenever you or your children are bicycling, roller-skating, in-line skating, ice-skating, skiing, snowboarding, playing football, batting or running the bases in softball or baseball, skateboarding, or horseback riding. Wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle.
Take steps around the house to prevent falls, such as removing small area rugs, improving lighting and installing handrails.