Thankfully, the vast majority of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are mild, commonly referred to as concussions. Recovery for mild concussions are fairly simple: Take it easy, and slowly integrate yourself back into your normal life.
But not all TBIs are mild. “A reasonable question to ask is, 'When should I be really concerned about a concussion?'” says Steven Flanagan, MD, chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU Langone Health. While some TBIs are mild, others may be severe, and if untreated, could cause complications, permanent damage, or even death. Learn more about the different types of traumatic brain injuries here.
No matter the severity of a TBI, you should always reach out to a healthcare provider, even if it’s just calling your primary care physician to get their recommendations for next steps. However, if the injury is severe, it may be more appropriate to go straight to the emergency room.
“If you're in doubt, seek out care in an emergency department. When in doubt, seek out help,” says Dr. Flanagan.
Warning Signs of a Severe TBI
Along with the typical symptoms of a concussion, there are some additional symptoms that are a sure sign you should seek emergency medical attention. Here are the danger signs of a severe TBI you should look for:
Loss of consciousness, especially for a prolonged period of time
A headache that won’t go away or gets worse
Difficulty waking up
These could indicate potential complications of a traumatic brain injury, such as hemorrhaging (bleeding), skull fracture, or brain contusions (bruises). The emergency department can detect these problems using a CT scan, and can treat you immediately. The sooner you get treatment for a severe TBI, the better your prognosis will be.
“Just go off to the emergency department. Get them assessed,” says Dr. Flanagan. “If there is something wrong, it's [going to] be taken care of right away, and if there's not, it helps to bring down the anxiety.”