March 17, 2022

What to Do if You Hit Your Head, and When to Seek Treatment

If you experience any of these “red flag” symptoms after a head injury, you should seek help immediately, experts warn.

After performing a stand-up comedy act in Orlando, Florida, on January 9, comedian and actor Bob Saget was found unresponsive in his hotel room, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

According to a statement from his family to The Hollywood Reporter, the 65-year-old “accidentally hit the back of his head on something, thought nothing of it and went to sleep.” It was later revealed in an autopsy report that Saget suffered a “significant blow to the head,” and had multiple skull fractures and brain bleeding, The New York Times reports.

Life-threatening brain injuries like Saget’s aren’t uncommon: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 61,000 people died from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in 2019. And the majority of these TBIs occur from falls, Angela K. Lumba-Brown, MD, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine and neurosurgery at the Stanford School of Medicine, tells Health.

While TBIs can result in severe medical complications, including brain bleeding, swelling, and death, knowing when to seek emergency medical care for yourself or another person can be life-saving. Here’s what you need to know about traumatic brain injuries, and what to do if you hit your head (especially if you’re alone).

Head injuries, explained

When you bump your arm or sprain your ankle, you can usually see physical signs of injury, which might prompt you to seek medical attention. Brain injuries, on the other hand, aren’t visible.

“It’s very different from other injuries where you can see bruising on your skin or swelling in your ankle,” George T. Chiampas, DO, assistant professor of emergency medicine and orthopedic surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Health. “That’s why it’s so important to be cognizant of developing symptoms and when to address them.”

According to the CDC, traumatic brain injuries happen from a “bump, blow, or jolt to the head.” In addition to falls, TBIs can occur from direct hits to the head, vehicle accidents, or inflicted injuries (like an assault or suicide attempt), Dr. Lumba-Brown tells Health.

TBIs also occur on a spectrum–the most common being a mild TBI or concussion. Hitting your head on a cabinet door, falling, or getting injured playing a sport might cause one of these mild TBIs, says Dr. Lumba-Brown. And while you might experience pain and neurological symptoms while suffering from a concussion, a brain scan won’t show symptoms like bleeding, bruising, or swelling, she adds. The CDC says most people who suffer a concussion feel better within a few weeks.

Moderate or severe TBIs, however, will show up on brain scans–usually in a variety of ways. Hematomas–specifically epidural hematomas or subdural hematomas–are one way a TBI can manifest, Anthony P. Kontos, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program, tells Health. An epidural hematoma involves bleeding from a ruptured blood vessel in the space between the skull and the covering around the brain, called the dura mater. A subdural hematoma involves bleeding from a ruptured blood vessel between the dura mater and the area just outside the brain (the arachnoid).

Moderate to severe TBIs can also include contusions, or bruising of the brain tissue; or hemorrhages–both intracerebral hemorrhages and subarachnoid hemorrhages–which is when active bleeding is present, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS).

These moderate to severe TBIs can be especially dangerous–any type of bleeding or swelling in the skull can increase pressure in the brain (known as increased intracranial pressure), which is a life-threatening situation, says Dr. Chiampas. Extra pressure in the brain can press on brain structures and restrict blood flow, which can lead to severe brain damage or death, according to the US National Library of Medicine.

TBIs can also progress from one degree to another, which is why it’s so important to seek medical care if you’re concerned. “[Epidural and subdural hematomas] can occur several days or even weeks following an injury to the head, so it is important to stay vigilant and monitor your symptoms,” says Kontos. “Do not hesitate to go to the ER if something feels off.”

Who’s most at-risk for complications from head injuries?

TBIs can impact anyone, but some people are at a higher risk than others for severe problems. For example, people with bleeding disorders are at a higher risk for complications, says Dr. Lumba-Brown. People older than 65, who have thinner blood vessels and smaller brains, are also at a higher risk for severe injury.

Those with a condition called osteopenia, which causes people to lose bone mass and increases the risk of skull fractures, are considered high-risk, as well.

Taking blood thinners (including aspirin) is also a major risk factor. “Because blood thinners prevent blood clots from forming, even small cuts or bruises will bleed a lot more,” says Kontos. “Because of that, blood thinners may increase the risk of any bleeding in the brain.”

Lastly, people who might have difficulty explaining their symptoms–young children, people with dementia or memory problems, or patients who suffer from a substance use disorder–are also at a higher risk, says Dr. Chiampas.

When should you go to the doctor after a head injury?

It’s always a good idea to be evaluated by a medical professional after a head injury, even if it’s mild. According to Kontos, concussions can exacerbate existing issues like migraines, motion sickness, and anxiety and mood disorders.

Because head injuries can worsen over time, a doctor’s input can also help you monitor your symptoms and impairments to make sure they aren’t getting worse. Research suggests seeking medical help within one week of a mild head injury–one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found that those who sustained a head injury and sought medical attention within a week recovered faster than those who waited longer to seek help.

Moderate and severe TBIs, however, require emergency care right away, says Kontos. If you have any of these “red flag” symptoms after a head injury, call 911 or have someone take you to the emergency department right away:

Loss of consciousness for any amount of timeA severe headacheOne pupil that’s larger than anotherDizzinessAny type of weakness or decreased coordinationSpeech problemsConfusion or difficulty thinkingSeizure (shaking or twitching) for any durationDrowsiness or inability to wake upRepeated nausea or vomiting

Aside from noticeable symptoms, Dr. Lumba-Brown says anyone who is considered high-risk for complications of a head injury should be seen by a medical professional right away. If you sustain a head injury while you’re alone, you should take extra precautions as well, like telling someone else about your head injury or calling your doctor (or scheduling a telemedicine session) to find out if and when you should seek treatment. And if you have uneasiness about sleep following any kind of head injury–even a relatively mild one–it’s in your best interest to chat with a doctor, too. “A medical professional can weigh in as to whether your sleepiness is normal or if it’s representative of a progressing brain injury,” says Dr. Lumba-Brown.

Of course, preventing TBIs in the first place is important, too, says Dr. Lumba-Brown. Preventive measures can include always wearing a seatbelt in a vehicle and a helmet when you’re supposed to (like when riding a bike, skiing, or skateboarding). At home, you can also keep walkways clear, clean up spills when they happen, don’t put loose rugs on the floor, and avoid risky behaviors like standing on chairs and climbing on countertops or ladders–especially when you’re alone.

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