Overview

Post-concussion syndrome is a complex disorder in which various symptoms — such as headaches and dizziness — last for weeks and sometimes months after the injury that caused the concussion.

Concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that usually happens after a blow to the head. It can also occur with violent shaking and movement of the head or body. You don't have to lose consciousness to get a concussion or post-concussion syndrome. In fact, the risk of post-concussion syndrome doesn't appear to be associated with the severity of the initial injury.

In most people, symptoms occur within the first seven to 10 days and go away within three months. Sometimes, they can persist for a year or more.

The goal of treatment after concussion is to effectively manage your symptoms.

Symptoms

Post-concussion symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of concentration and memory
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Blurry vision
  • Noise and light sensitivity
  • Rarely, decreases in taste and smell

Post-concussion headaches can vary and may feel like tension-type headaches or migraines. Most often, they are tension-type headaches. These may be associated with a neck injury that happened at the same time as the head injury.

When to see a doctor

See a doctor if you experience a head injury severe enough to cause confusion or amnesia — even if you never lost consciousness.

If a concussion occurs while you're playing a sport, don't go back in the game. Seek medical attention so that you don't risk worsening your injury.

Causes

Some experts believe post-concussion symptoms are caused by structural damage to the brain or disruption of the messaging system within the nerves, caused by the impact that caused the concussion.

Others believe post-concussion symptoms are related to psychological factors, especially since the most common symptoms — headache, dizziness and sleep problems — are similar to those often experienced by people diagnosed with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

In many cases, both physiological effects of brain trauma and emotional reactions to these effects play a role in the development of symptoms.

Researchers haven't determined why some people who've had concussions develop persistent post-concussion symptoms while others do not. There's no proven connection between the severity of the injury and the likelihood of developing persistent post-concussion symptoms.

However, some research shows that certain factors are more common in people who develop post-concussion syndrome compared with those who don't develop the syndrome. These factors include a history of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, significant life stressors, a poor social support system and lack of coping skills.

More research is still needed to better understand how and why post-concussion syndrome happens after some injuries and not others.

Risk factors

Risk factors for developing post-concussion syndrome include:

  • Age. Studies have found increasing age to be a risk factor for post-concussion syndrome.
  • Sex. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, but this may be because women are generally more likely to seek medical care.

Prevention

The only known way to prevent post-concussion syndrome is to avoid the head injury in the first place.

Avoiding head injuries

Although you can't prepare for every potential situation, here are some tips for avoiding common causes of head injuries:

  • Fasten your seat belt whenever you're traveling in a car, and be sure children are in age-appropriate safety seats. Children under 13 are safest riding in the back seat, especially if your car has air bags.
  • Use helmets whenever you or your children are bicycling, roller-skating, in-line skating, ice-skating, skiing, snowboarding, playing football, batting or running the bases in softball or baseball, skateboarding, or horseback riding. Wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle.
  • Take action at home to prevent falls, such as removing small area rugs, improving lighting and installing handrails.
July 28, 2017
References
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  5. Ferri FF. Postconcussive syndrome. In: Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2017. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier; 2017. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed June 2, 2017.
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  7. Schultz BA (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. June 13, 2017.
  8. What can I do to help prevent traumatic brain injury? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/prevention.html. Accessed June 2, 2017.
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Post-concussion syndrome