Concussions: Getting Better
If you scrape a knee, you’ll have a scab for a while as your skin grows back. If you break your arm, you may not be able to use it for a couple of weeks. All body parts take time to heal, even brains.
If you get a concussion, it means that you’ve injured your brain and you need to give it time to get better. That usually means rest. It also means following a doctor’s advice on the things you can — and can’t — do as you heal. If your brain is injured again before the first injury heals, it can lead to serious medical problems.
The good news is that following a doctor’s instructions at home lets most teens recover from concussions in a week or two without lasting health problems.
What to Do at Home
Sometimes, if concussions are serious enough, doctors send patients to the hospital for care. But most of the time, doctors send patients home to rest.
When you’re at home, you’re in charge of your own care. Take the role seriously and make sure you have what you need to follow all your doctor’s recommendations — like being able to stay in a dark or quiet room, if that is what makes you feel better. It’s the only way to help your brain heal fast and get you back in your best form for sports, studying, and other things that matter.
Here are the top things to do when healing from a concussion at home:
- Follow all your doctor’s instructions.
- Go to all your scheduled follow-up visits.
- Call a doctor if you have headaches that get worse or other problems that don’t go away.
- If your doctor says to stay home from school or work for a few days, do it — no matter what else you have going on. Don’t let anyone pressure you into something that doesn’t fit in with your healing plan.
Your doctor may want you to do some or all of these things:
- Rest your body. Your doctor will probably tell you to avoid sports and physical activities until your concussion is completely healed. While you still have symptoms (like a headache, trouble seeing well, or changes in mood), you’ll need to limit yourself to staying home to sleep or sit quietly. You’ll only do the basic things in life, like eating. This puts less stress on your brain so you avoid hurting it again. When all your symptoms are gone, you should return to physical activities slowly.
Rest your mind. As well as resting your body to prevent physical injury, your doctor might tell you to avoid any cognitive (thinking) activity that makes your symptoms worse. Resting your mind includes not looking at the screens on computers, cellphones, TVs, or other devices. Your doctor will probably also tell you to avoid schoolwork, reading, or anything else that might strain your eyes and mind.
If these activities do not make your symptoms worse, you can start them again gradually, but you should stop immediately if any symptoms return. Some activities, like watching sports or playing video games, are especially bad for you because they require a lot of eye movement. Your doctor will probably tell you to stay away from these for a while.
- Eat well and drink lots of noncaffeinated beverages. Caffeine is a stimulant that can put added stress on your brain.
- Avoid bright lights and loud noises. These can make concussion symptoms worse.
- Take a break from activities that require quick decisions and reactions, like driving or operating machinery.
Getting Back to Normal Activities
One thing is essential in healing from a concussion: You need to get the OK from your doctor before you play sports or start doing any physical activities. Even if you feel better, your thinking, behavior, and balance might not be back to normal yet.
If you play sports and a coach or school official wants you to start playing again before a doctor says it’s OK, don’t let yourself get talked into it. Almost every state has rules about when kids and teens can play sports again after a concussion. These rules are there to protect players so they’re not pushed into getting back in the game too soon — when the risk of a second, more serious injury is high.
Hurrying back to sports and other physical activities increases the risk of a condition called second-impact syndrome. This can happen if someone gets a second head injury. It’s rare, but you don’t want to be the person who gets it because it can cause lasting brain damage and even death.
Anyone with a concussion needs to heal completely before doing anything that could lead to another concussion.
How Will I Know When I’m Healed?
Concussions are different from most injuries. Scabs peel and bruises fade. But you can’t see when your brain is healed.
Doctors have several ways to predict when someone’s brain is healed. Because every concussion is different, though, it can be tricky to decide when someone is OK to play sports or do other activities.
A doctor will consider you healed when:
- You have no more symptoms.
- You regain all your memory and concentration.
- You have no symptoms after jogging, sprinting, sit-ups, or push-ups.
After a doctor tells you it’s OK to start doing your normal activities again, ease back into things. Stop playing right away if any symptoms return. You only get one brain — don’t take any chances with it!
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015