Concussion Recovery: When Should You See a Doctor?

When should you or your child see a doctor after a concussion? The answer may surprise you. Melissa Womble, PhD, a neuropsychologist and director of the Inova Sports Medicine Concussion Program, helped clear up some concussion confusion.

Myth: If you have signs of concussion, you should head straight to the ER.

Reality: Not necessarily. If you notice significant symptoms such as vomiting, slurred speech or a severe headache that doesn’t ease, you should head to the emergency room to rule out structural problems, such as bleeding in the brain. But while ER doctors can diagnose a concussion, the treatment they can provide in the hospital is very limited. In many cases, it’s safe to wait until you can see your primary care doctor.

Myth: See your doctor for concussion as soon after the injury as possible.

Reality: The best time to see your doctor is actually 48 to 72 hours after the concussion occurs. Before that, patients often experience so many concussion symptoms that it can be hard to spot patterns. Concussions come in different varieties: Some people mainly have visual problems, for example, while others mostly experience dizziness and balance issues. Waiting a couple of days for early symptoms to ease helps the experts determine what type of concussion you have — and how best to treat it. (Exception: Signs like convulsions, severe headache, slurred speech and vomiting can indicate a more serious injury and should get checked out right away.)

Myth: CT scans are the best way to diagnose a concussion.

Reality: CT scans can rule out structural problems such as skull fractures or bleeding in the brain. But scans can’t actually diagnose a concussion. Doctors diagnose concussion through a combination of self-reported symptoms, neurocognitive assessments and other tools.

Myth: I can treat a concussion myself by resting at home.

Reality: The recommended concussion treatment is a lot more active than it used to be — no more resting quietly in dark rooms. Doctors manage concussions with tailored treatments depending on the type of concussion (whether a person mostly has problems with dizziness, visual processing or memory, for example). Pediatricians and primary care doctors are trained to manage concussions. But specialty concussion clinics are often helpful, especially if you experience a lot of dizziness after the injury (which can be a sign that recovery may be prolonged), or if symptoms last more than a week.

Concerned about concussion and need help identifying symptoms or scheduling a concussion appointment? Call our 24/7 Concussion Hotline: 703-970-6427 or request an appointment with our Concussion Management Team.

Inova Sports Medicine is the Official Sports Medicine Partner of the Washington Nationals and the Washington Redskins.

2 Comments

  1. Shammy on February 2, 2022 at 1:52 am

    You got my attention when you said that you must see a doctor 48-72 hours if you have signs of concussion such as a severe headache that does not ease. With this in mind, I will be sure to bring my husband to a brain specialist within the day. He has been vomiting a lot and had been complaining about recurring headaches since he had a minor auto accident this morning.

  2. Nanette on February 25, 2022 at 2:32 pm

    It has been longer than 72 hours but this article made me think about my symptoms. I was in a head on auto accident in November (jolted so hard my glasses ended up in the back seat). Suffered from headache and neck pain since then. Then about 5 days ago lifting a heavy object fell backwards with it and landed on my left side and back. Didn’t hit my head but have had a headache with nausea since then.
    Reached out to my primary care provider today after reading this article. Thank you

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