By: Dr. Ahmad Elakil

Insight Hospital and Medical Center Chicago – Whether it’s a blow to the head or a sudden jolt, a concussion is a serious injury that can happen in an instant. And unlike other injuries, it can be difficult to know if you have a concussion since symptoms may not be recognized until hours or even days after the injury occurs. In our previous blog, I shared some tips on how to recognize the signs of a brain concussion and what to do if you experience a head injury. In this blog I will explain our approach to concussion diagnosis and treatment at Insight, as well as how to know when it is safe to return to work or sports, and tips to protect your brain from future concussions.

Concussion Diagnosis
The sooner you see a physician after you experience a head injury, the easier it will be for you to receive the diagnosis and treatment you need to prevent further complications. Healthcare professionals use a variety of tests for concussion diagnosis, with the most common being a neurological exam. This type of exam assesses: 

  • Neurological function
  • Reflexes
  • Vision
  • Eye movements
  • Reaction to light 
  • Balance and coordination
  • Hearing ability 
  • Strength 
  • Mobility of the neck muscles

Verbal, written, and computerized tests are also used to measure thinking ability, memory, concentration, and problem-solving skills. 

In some cases, a CT scan or MRI may be used during the diagnostic process. This is especially common if a physician suspects severe injuries to the brain, including internal bleeding, brain swelling, and injuries to the cervical spine (top portion of the spine) or spinal cord. Imaging is also used if symptoms get worse over time. 

Concussion Treatment
When it comes to treating concussions, there are several approaches a physician might recommend. The following are some of the treatments I recommend most often to my patients. 

Physical and Mental Rest
One of the most beneficial things you can do after experiencing a concussion is resting. However, it is important to remember you should not be totally sedentary following a concussion. Too much rest can actually make things worse

While resting, make note of the activities that trigger or worsen your symptoms, such as spending too much time using the phone, reading, watching television, or doing certain physical activities. Reduce these activities and try to replace them with ones that do not aggravate your symptoms while you recover. 

Avoid blood thinning pain killers like aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen. After you have been diagnosed with a concussion, your doctor might recommend acetaminophen, which is a safer pain-relieving option. 

Dietary Adjustments
After a concussion, you might experience changes in appetite and thirst. Make sure you are drinking at least six glasses of water per day and try to keep your blood sugar up by eating at regular intervals. Your brain will be more sensitive to dehydration and low blood sugar after a concussion, and these conditions can worsen your symptoms. 

Returning to Work or School
“When can I return to work or school” is a common question I am asked by patients after they receive a concussion diagnosis. This is not a one-size-fits-all answer. 

A person’s ability to return to work or school depends on many factors, including the severity of their symptoms, how well they follow their treatment protocol, and how quickly they are recovering. In most cases, patients will miss several days or work or school immediately following their injury and diagnosis. After symptoms start improving, they should work with their physician to determine an appropriate return date. 

In general, it is best for students to make their return gradually. Here are some ways students and parents can make returning to school after a concussion easier:

  • Wake up naturally without setting an alarm clock – even if it means going to school late. 
  • Evaluate symptoms at the beginning of each day to determine if you are well enough to attend class. 
  • Check in with a nurse or counselor at the beginning of the day before going to class. 

Parents should also work with their children’s teachers, school nurses, and counselors to make adjustments to their school day, if needed. For example, students might need more time to take tests or complete assignments. Some students may require a reduction in school work. Being able to take breaks if classes get overwhelming can also be helpful, as can having another classmate help with note taking.

Returning to Sports
I am also often asked about when patients can return to sports after sustaining a concussion from an athletics-related activity. It is understandable that athletes want to get back to the game as quickly as possible. However, it is important to proceed with caution to avoid additional injuries. 

Athletes should only return to sports when they have been given approval from their physician. They should also work closely with their coach and athletic trainer to ensure they do not exceed their limits. If athletes experience any symptoms after returning to sports, it is critical to get help right away. 

Athletes should consider a gradual return to participation in sports activities, making sure they can return to work or school without any problems. When the athlete is able to perform a heavy physical activity such as sprinting or weightlifting without symptoms, they can return to practice with supervision. At this point, as long as symptoms are kept at bay, they can eventually return to competition with permission from their physician. 

Concussion Prevention and Safety
When it comes to preventing concussions and staying safe, especially during sporting activities, there are a number of steps people can take. Here are some of the most well-known and effective preventative measures that I recommend:

  • Use an age-appropriate car or booster seat for children.
  • Use seat belts for children and adults. 
  • Use age and activity-appropriate helmets for children and adults. 
  • Use stair gates for infants and toddlers to prevent falls.
  • Enforce rules for tackling, helmet use, and illegal contact during sports.
  • Implement a detailed concussion action plan for coaches to reduce risk of injury and ensure prompt treatment. 

This final point is particularly important. It is not always possible to prevent concussions. However, having a plan in place to reduce the likelihood of a concussion and ensure that athletes receive treatment as soon as possible can go a long way toward minimizing their frequency. 

Are You Experiencing Concussion Symptoms?
If you think you are experiencing concussion symptoms, it is important to consult an expert immediately. Any level of concussion can be a severe health issue requiring care by a healthcare professional specializing in concussion treatment. To request an appointment with Dr. Ahmad Elakil or to learn more about the services offered at Insight Hospital & Medical Center in Chicago, please call (312) 567-2273 or click here to find out about same-day appointments.