Picture this: You’re driving to work, minding your own business, when your sedan is broadsided by a pickup truck.
It’s not the worst car accident in the world – your sedan suffers some damage and you were rattled around like a free-floating character in a snow globe, but somehow you didn’t hit anything. So you are very surprised when your doctor diagnoses you with a concussion.
“But I didn’t hit my head!” you say in protest, though you do have a headache.
As it turns out, it doesn’t matter if you hit your head on anything. The forces at work in a car accident are strong enough that even if you don’t smack your forehead on the dashboard, you can still have a concussion after an accident.
What is a concussion?
Doctors like to say, “When you’ve seen one concussion, you’ve seen one concussion.”
Generally speaking, a concussion is the result of a force to the head, and that’s it. This can be from a punch, fall or extreme outside source, like a car accident.
The presentation of concussions can vary widely and have a vast array of symptoms:
Think about it: If your car stops suddenly, your body keeps moving and is only restrained by your seatbelt. Your brain is floating in fluid inside of your skull. The only thing that keeps it from moving is the tether to your spinal cord and the cage of your head. If the accident’s forces are strong enough, your brain could bounce against the inside of your skull, which can result in subdural hematomas, torn tissues or other secondary injuries.
Types of concussion
A concussion is a closed head injury, meaning that nothing penetrated the skull cavity like pieces of glass from the windshield or a shard of metal. An open injury would mean exactly what it says. Those injuries are far more dangerous and can lead to death.
Cognitive/fatigue: This type of concussion relates to memory, tiredness and recall. You will have difficulty forming new memories, recalling old memories and learning new information. You might also be increasingly irritable, tired and grouchy.
Vestibular: The vestibular function governs your ability to balance. If you have an ear infection, that is why you will get vertigo; your vestibular senses are completely overridden.
Ocular: If you suffer from an ocular concussion, you will have trouble tracking objects with your eyes. They might even move independently of each other, like a chameleon.
Post-traumatic migraine: This manifests as sensitivity to light and sound. There may be halos around lights and sounds might be louder. This can trigger nausea and intense headaches.
Cervical: These concussions are deceiving because “cervical” actually refers to the upper neck region, which is located right below the head. The pain in the cervical region flows upward to the head and then back down, almost in a circular motion. This leads to a rebound effect that creates endless headaches. It is also difficult to figure out where the pain starts and stops.
Anxiety/Mood: Concussions can also change an individual’s personality, such as when he cannot stop worrying despite evidence to the contrary or when he becomes very irritable about inconsequential things.
What to do if you have had a concussion
The first thing to do if you’ve had a concussion is not to be a hero.
Just because you cannot see an injury does not mean it isn’t serious, so don’t try to go to work and definitely do not try to drive. You shouldn’t be driving for at least 24 hours after a concussive episode. While only 5% of concussions result in serious internal bleeding, it is best to treat all concussions as serious.
If you have been injured after a car accident, make sure you’re monitored very closely. Watch for the following symptoms:
Dilation of pupils
Loss of consciousness
If any of these occur, you should receive medical attention immediately.
When you are discharged from the hospital’s care, have someone stay with you for at least the first 24 hours. It used to be said that you shouldn’t sleep if you have had a concussion, but that was mainly because we did not have the equipment necessary to look inside of a person’s skull to see what was wrong. These days, it is perfectly acceptable to sleep once a doctor has cleared you. In fact, it’s even encouraged.
Health outlook after a concussion
Most of the time, concussions clear up on their own within a few days or a week. There can be times, however, when the concussions stick around and morph into chronic headaches.
This is called Post-Concussion Syndrome, and the symptoms mirror the aftermath of an acute concussion: headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, etc. These are mostly tension-type headaches and are associated with cervical injuries. This syndrome is debilitating and can seriously interfere with life’s activities.