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Head injuries come in many forms, but almost always involve bruising or tissue damage to the skull and brain. Concussions are some of the most common, and aren’t usually anything to worry about — though any injury to the head has the potential to be very serious, which means that even seemingly minor bumps should typically be evaluated by a professional. Skull fractures and cracks happen when the hard bone of the head makes contact with some other surface, as is often the case in accident and assault victims. Traumatic brain injuries are also usually the result of some sort of impact, and are among the hardest to fix or correct. People may also experience blood clots in their brains, though this is usually considered more of a brain injury than a head injury. In most cases, an injury is only ascribed to the head when damage originates from the outside.
Concussions are essentially “brain bruises." They happen when the soft tissue of the brain slams into the skull wall with force. The human brain is surrounded by fluid that keeps it cushioned within the confines of the skull, and that fluid is generally able to withstand some jostling; when people hit their heads really hard, though, the brain can come through that fluid to collide with the bone. This typically leaves a bruise much like a bruise a person would experience when banging an arm or a leg into a hard surface.
In most cases concussions are relatively minor, and they aren’t usually a cause for alarm. Some people experience immediate symptoms like losing consciousness or blurred vision, but other people won’t really feel anything out of the ordinary. Symptoms that can come on later include headaches, confusion, loss of awareness, memory loss, and vomiting, which may last a couple of days or weeks. Medical professionals often treat concussions by recommending that the patient stay off his or her feet and get plenty of rest, since in most cases the brain will heal itself.
Skull fractures happen when the skull actually breaks or cracks in response to outside pressure. There are four types of skull fractures: linear, diastatic, depressed, and basilar. Linear fractures are the least serious, and often involve no more than a hairline crack; basilar injuries, on the other hand, often involve breaks in multiple places, often putting doctors on the lookout for pieces of bone that may slip away and penetrate the brain.
Of course, it’s not usually possible to put a broken skull in a cast the way one would a broken arm or leg. Head braces and immobilizers are sometimes required during healing, but in most cases patients just have to commit to staying still and getting lots of rest. Special pillows may be needed depending on the extent of the injury, and a hospital stay including scans and specialized testing is often required to get a proper diagnosis.
Traumatic Brain Injuries
Another major subset of injuries concerns direct impact to the brain. These often happen in conjunction with concussions or fractures, but are usually considered a separate type of injury, known in most places as a “traumatic brain injury” or TBI. TBIs sometimes heal themselves, as is often the case with bad concussions, but they may also require surgery or therapy. When objects have pieced the skull and entered the brain, for instance, patients often require extensive medical intervention to regain full brain function; the same is true when bruises cover large parts of the brain and cause tissues to die off or become impaired.
Intracranial hematomas, more commonly known as blood clots in the brain, can also be considered a type of injury to the head, though unless they occur in conjunction with an outside trauma they are usually more properly classed as a brain problem. Epidural hematomas are clots that form between the brain and the skull, and can pass into the spinal column; subdural clots are those that form on the actual surface of the brain. Clots commonly follow TBIs, but they can happen all on their own, too, as is the case with strokes and aneurisms. Healthcare providers often want to closely monitor clots in the head as they can be lethal if they break free. Large clots can stop the heart of impair proper brain functioning in ways that can’t always be reversed.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of head traumas are often as varied as the injuries themselves, but persistent headaches, nausea, and loss of consciousness are among the most common. Blurred vision, slurred speech, and memory problems are also high on the list. In general, experts recommend that people get evaluated by a medical professional any time they’ve hit their head and notice anything out of the ordinary. Brain problems are often most easily treated shortly after an injury has occurred. The longer a person waits, the harder it can be to fix any damage that’s been done.
Common Safety Precautions
It’s often possible to avoid head injuries by following basic safety precautions, like wearing helmets while biking, riding a motorcycle, or engaging in any high-impact activity, including many team sports. People who wear seatbelts in cars can sometimes also avoid head injuries that result from ejection of jostling in case of an accident.