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What you need to know about concussions

How do you recognize a concussion? When does a concussion need medical attention?There’s a good chance you may not know the answers. According to statistics from the Public Health Agency of Canada, fewer than half of Canadians know what to do if someone gets a concussion or how to recognize the symptoms.

Physicians like Dr. Tina Atkinson are working to change that. Dr. Atkinson is a founding member of Concussion Nova Scotia and chief medical officer (CMO) of the Professional Women’s Hockey League. She has previously served as team physician for the Canadian women’s hockey team and the Halifax Mooseheads.

“We want people to know the basic signs of concussion, and if you suspect a concussion, to know what to do and be able to self-manage before you see a physician or nurse practitioner,” Dr. Atkinson says.

A concussion is a brain injury – caused by an impact on your head or body that causes your brain to move inside your skull. It can affect the way you behave, how you think and feel, and generally the way your brain works.

About 11,300 Nova Scotians sustain a concussion each year. Concussions can happen suddenly, and not just in collision sports. In the winter, there’s no shortage of people who are at risk: kids zipping down a toboggan hill, people walking on icy sidewalks as well as those involved in motor vehicle accidents. Remember: you don’t have to lose consciousness or receive a hit to the head to have a concussion.

Concussions can present through a variety of signs and symptoms:

Check out this concussion information card to understand the signs and symptoms of concussion in kids, youth and adults.

If you suspect you have a concussion, monitor your symptoms in the first few minutes or hours. “Seek medical attention right away if you lose consciousness, your symptoms get worse (such as increasing confusion), you feel sudden weakness or tingling in your arms, legs or your neck, or you have sudden or severe vomiting that’s not stopping,” says Dr. Atkinson. If a child shows any of these symptoms or has vomited more than twice, has had seizures or difficulty walking or seems more confused, take them to the emergency department.

Some concussions can be managed at home with a period of rest (24 to 48 hours) for the body and brain – including time off from work, school, sports, driving, reading, using screens or drinking alcohol – followed by a gradual return to activity. After a period of rest, “getting out and walking actually helps calm down some of the symptoms.”

If your symptoms don’t improve after 48 hours, seek medical attention.

There are risks to coming back to full activity before recovery, including worsening symptoms and second-impact syndrome, which can occur if you have another impact to the head when you already have a concussion.

Although each concussion is different, typical recovery can take up to three weeks for an average adult and up to four weeks or more for children and youth. (The Concussion Nova Scotia website has great resources on strategies for returning to school, work and sport.) You can also check out School First, a guide by brain injury experts in the Canadian Family Physician’s Journal that outlines best practices for students, teachers and parents.

Dr. Atkinson recommends seeing a health-care provider familiar with concussion treatment for follow-up assessment and care before returning to sports or more intense work or school situations.

This spring, the International Concussion in Sport Group will be releasing new guidelines on the diagnosis and management of sport-related concussions. Nova Scotia also has a provincial concussion awareness day every September.

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