What’s the Difference Between a Concussion and a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury?

What’s the Difference B…

Which would you rather have: a concussion or a mild traumatic brain injury? The correct answer, of course, is “neither.” But most people, if forced to choose, would pick a concussion. Most of us know someone who has had a concussion, and most of the time, people recover fully from concussions (although it may take weeks or months). Traumatic brain injury (TBI), on the other hand, sounds downright scary. Trauma. Brain Injury. These are things no one wants to experience, even if mild.

The truth is, concussion is a type of mild traumatic brain injury. But because we are more familiar with that term, people have normalized the idea of getting a concussion; it’s often not considered a big deal, though it should be. Concussions happen in accidents and assaults, but also during everyday activities like kids’ sporting events.

The good news, as mentioned above, is that most people make a complete recovery from their concussion. That said, in a small percentage of cases, there can be serious complications. That’s why it is so important to understand the symptoms of concussion, the proper treatment, and when to seek further help.

Symptoms of a Concussion

A concussion is a brain injury caused either by a blow to the head, or by a violent shaking of the head and body. Concussion may, but need not, involve a loss of consciousness. Doctors use the terms “mild traumatic brain injury” and “concussion” interchangeably for an injury that results in a brief, temporary loss of normal brain function.

People who experience a mild TBI or concussion may experience one, or several, of the following symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Vision changes, including blurred or double vision
  • Headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • A sensation of having “lost time”
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Difficulty rousing
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory loss, particularly regarding events before or just after the injury

For instance, one young man we know went skiing with friends, had a small accident, and bumped his head. Other than having a headache, he initially seemed fine. However, when he later kept asking his friends the same questions over and over again, they became concerned. When he did not recall the attractive young women the group had met shortly before his injury, his friends immediately (and wisely) took him to the ER for evaluation. For a group of young guys, the inability of one of them to remember a pretty girl he’d just met was cause for alarm.

Because sleepiness or drowsiness is common after a mild TBI, many victims resist seeking medical attention, thinking they will be fine after they get some sleep. While rest is an important component of recovery from concussion, it is important for people who have suffered a head injury to get checked out medically first to rule out serious problems, such as bleeding into the brain. An undiagnosed and untreated head injury was the cause of actor Bob Saget’s death.

Diagnosing a Concussion

If someone is experiencing symptoms of concussion, they should be evaluated medically as soon as possible, at an emergency department if necessary. Bear in mind that as in the example of the skier above, concerning symptoms may not appear until hours after the injury. The fact that the victim initially seemed fine does not mean they have not suffered a concussion.

An examining doctor will take a medical history, listen to the patient’s symptoms, and any signs of concussion reported by the person accompanying the patient. (If you have suffered a head injury, it goes without saying that you should not be driving yourself to the doctor or hospital.)

The doctor will also probably perform a neurological examination. This typically involves testing vision, hearing, reflexes, strength, balance, and coordination. In addition, cognitive tests are commonly used to diagnose concussion. These test memory, ability to recall information, and concentration.

Under some circumstances, an examining physician will order brain imaging, particularly if symptoms are severe or worsening over time. Computerized tomography, also known as CT scans, are most common, but magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may also be used.

It is also common for head injury victims to require observation for a day or so after their injury to ensure that concussion symptoms are not getting worse. A patient may be hospitalized for observation, or may be sent home to be watched carefully by a friend or family member.

Recovery From Concussion

Recovery from a concussion may take only hours in the case of the mildest injuries, but often takes weeks and sometimes months. Recovery can take longer for young children, teens, older adults, and people who have had previous concussions.

Early in recovery, physical and mental rest are critical. That includes visual rest from screens. For people who struggle to sit still for even a few moments without picking up their phone, switching on their computer, or watching TV, that can be a challenge. But it is important to allow the brain to rest and recover. It may be necessary, depending on a doctor’s advice, to take a few days off of school or work. Activity can be gently re-introduced as tolerated, but patients should go slowly. If concussion symptoms worsen, step back.

Unfortunately, there is no medication specifically for treating concussions. Pain relievers can be used as indicated for headache, and anti-nausea medication may be helpful in the immediate aftermath of the concussion. But there is no medication that will make a mild traumatic brain injury heal more quickly.

Failure to properly diagnose and treat a concussion can lead to further damage and longer lasting symptoms. Therefore, it is essential that people who seek evaluation after a head injury are properly screened for concussion. Under some circumstances, failure to diagnose concussion or mild traumatic brain injury could be medical malpractice.

If you have questions about mild traumatic brain injury, post-concussion syndrome, or whether your doctor properly diagnosed and treated your injury, contact Huegli Fraser to schedule a consultation.

Blog Disclaimer

The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.