A knock to the head seems par for the course when you play certain sports or recreational activities. Not all head injuries are serious, but some can be dangerous – even life-threatening.
“Head injuries are damage to the scalp, skull or brain caused by trauma,” said Melissa Luxton, trauma outreach and injury prevention coordinator with Banner Health. “This can range from a mild bump or bruise to a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which affects how the brain works.”
It can be hard to know how serious an injury is or not. Some minor head injuries cause bruising and bleeding, while some major injuries show no outward symptoms. This is why you should treat all head injuries seriously and see your health care provider.
Read on to understand the different types of head and traumatic brain injuries, how they most often occur and preventive steps you can take to protect yourself and your family.
Types of head injuries
The following are some of the different types of head injuries that can occur:
- Concussion: A concussion is a type of TBI caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head that can cause a loss of awareness or alertness for a few minutes up to a few hours after the event.
- Skull fracture: A skull fracture is any injury or trauma that causes a fracture or break to the cranial bone. The most common type of fracture to the skull is a linear skull fracture that causes a break in the bone but does not move it. Other types of fractures include a depressed skull fracture, a diastatic skull fracture (occurs along the suture lines in the skull), and the most serious kind, a basilar skull fracture (a break at the base of the skull).
- Hematoma: Also known as an intracranial hematoma, a hematoma is uncontrolled bleeding under the skull that forms a clot in and around the brain. They can range from mild head injuries to fatal.
- Edema: An injury that leads to swelling in the brain. The skull can’t stretch to make room for the swelling, which can lead to fluid pressure buildup causing the brain to press against the skull.
- Diffuse axonal injury (DAI): A DAI is a brain injury that doesn’t cause bleeding but does cause swelling or damage to brain cells. Most often it is caused by shaking the brain back and forth.
- Hemorrhage: A brain hemorrhage is a type of stroke that causes uncontrolled bleeding in or around the brain. The cause is an artery in the brain bursting and causing bleeding in the surrounding tissue.
Common causes of head injuries
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Brain Injury Association of America, the leading causes of head and brain injuries are motor vehicle crashes, falls, physical assault and abuse and sports-related accidents.
There are also non-traumatic brain injuries that cause damage to the brain by internal factors, such as a lack of oxygen, exposure to toxins/drugs, pressure from a tumor or an infectious disease.
Symptoms of a head injury
No matter the type of head injury, there are certain symptoms to look out for that may indicate a head injury. It’s important to note that symptoms may come on gradually or suddenly.
Call 911 and seek emergency medical care if you notice the following signs in adults and children:
- Headache that worsens and doesn’t go away
- Weakness, numbness, decreased coordination, convulsions or seizures
- Slurred speech or unusual behavior
- One pupil is larger than the other
- Unable to recognize people or places, easily confused, restless or agitated
- Loss of consciousness, very tired, or can’t wake up
“If your child experiences any of the symptoms above due to a bump, blow or jolt to the head or body, is unable to stop crying and/or refuses to eat or nurse, get them to the emergency department right away,” Luxton urged.
Eight ways you can help prevent a head injury
1. Wear a helmet or appropriate headgear.
“In the United States, nearly 1,000 bicyclists die each year, and over 130,000 people are injured in crashes – many of which could have been lessened or avoided with proper helmet use,” Luxton said. “Proper helmet use can reduce the chances of a head injury by 48%, serious head injuries by 60%, and TBI by 53%.”
Wear protective headgear when you:
- Ride a bike, motorcycle, snowmobile, scooter or all-terrain vehicle
- Play contact sports like football, ice hockey or boxing
- Use in-line skates or skateboard
- Bat and run bases in baseball or softball
- Ride a horse
- Ski or snowboard
Check out these tips for picking the right helmet for your sport or activity.
2. Buckle up every ride.
Wear a seat belt every time you drive or ride in a motor vehicle – no matter how short the ride.
3. Use approved car seats and booster seats in vehicles.
Keep children in a rear-facing position as long as possible in a car seat until they reach their car seat’s maximum weight or height limit. All child passengers should ride in the back seat until age 12.
“When children outgrow their rear-facing seat, they should be buckled in a forward-facing seat until they outgrow it and are ready for a booster seat,” Luxton said. “Proper seat belt fit usually occurs when children reach 4 feet 9 inches tall.
Check out these tips to find the perfect car seat at every age and stage in life.
4. Keep firearms unloaded and locked away.
A gun kept in the home is 43 times more likely to kill someone known to your family than an intruder in self-defense.
Store the gun unloaded in a locked container out of sight and reach of children. Use a trigger lock or gun lock.
Ask if the homes where your children visit or are cared for have guns. Ask how the firearms are stored and be sure your child will be safe there.
5. Prevent falls for older adults.
Older adults are most at risk for falls, specifically those over 75. Talk to your provider about your risk of falling and what you can do to reduce your fall risk.
Preventive measures you can take include:
- Do strength and balance exercises.
- Have your eyes checked once a year.
- Review your prescriptions with your provider or pharmacist to see if any might make you dizzy or sleepy.
- Get rid of things in your home you can trip over.
- Add grab bars inside and outside your tub or shower and next to the toilet.
- Place a non-slip mat on bathtub or shower floors.
- Put railings on both sides of the stairs.
- Make sure your home has lots of lights.
6. Prevent child injuries at home.
Install safety gates at the top and bottom of staircases when young children are around. Install window guards to keep children from falling out of open windows. If you have a balcony, put up a guard. Secure TVs, shelving and other furniture to the wall.
7. Ensure kids play and swim safely.
Before swimming or playing outdoors, ensure the area is safe and free of any hazards. Make sure your child’s playground has soft material under it, such as hardwood mulch or sand. Watch young children carefully when they are around play structures and bodies of water, such as pools, lakes and oceans.
8. Do not shake your baby.
Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is a serious brain injury that can result from forcefully shaking an infant or toddler. It usually occurs when a parent or caregiver shakes a baby out of anger or frustration.
“When your crying baby can’t be calmed, you may be tempted to try anything to get the tears to stop,” Luxton said. “But it’s important always to treat your child gently. Nothing justifies shaking them.
New parent education classes can help parents better understand the dangers of SBS and may provide tips to soothe a crying baby and manage stress.
If you’re having trouble managing your emotions or the stress of parenthood, talk to your health care provider or a licensed behavioral health specialist.
If other people care for your child, make sure they know the dangers of SBS.
Head and brain injuries can have severe and long-lasting effects on your health and well-being. Fortunately, many practical steps can help prevent these injuries from occurring in the first place.
Remember, acting now can help prevent long-term consequences later. So, stay safe and take care of your noggin.