Post-Concussion Syndrome – Headaches & Memory Loss
Post-concussion syndrome (PCS) results from injuries to the head. This can range from mild concussions (being struck on the head) to severe head injuries. Not always does the degree of head trauma correlate with the degree and symptoms of PCS. It is estimated that approximately 60-80% of patients suffering a moderate to severe concussion, traumatic brain injury (TBI), will develop PCS. In milder head injuries, PCS will develop up in up to 40-50% of injured individuals. Loss of consciousness is not a requirement for development of PCS. It is not even a requirement that there be a direct head injury. Patients who have sudden jerking movements of the head, particularly in car accidents, with out direct head trauma can suffer from PCS. Risk factors for development of PCS can include lower education level, drug or alcohol abuse, prior head injuries, or preexisting depression or anxiety. The recognition and diagnosis of the symptoms of PCS are important in helping affected patients to return to normal a quickly as possible.
The symptoms of PCS may develop immediately or make take days to several weeks to become apparent. Headaches and dizziness are the most common complaints in patients with PCS. These however are not the only symptoms that can be associated with PCS. Varying degrees of memory loss, concentration difficulty, anxiety, depression, irritability, emotional and behavioral disturbances, insomnia and personality changes. The headaches can vary from mild, dull, generalized headache to severe migraine like headaches. These headaches usually occur daily and can be quite debilitating. Dizziness can be anywhere from lightheadedness to a spinning type of dizziness known as vertigo. Patient can have irritability, anxiety and depression, partly due to the head injury but also from the persistence of their symptoms. Insomnia frequently accompanies these other psychological symptoms. In more severe case, behavioral changes can occur. Patients can become impulsive and irrational in their behavior. Psychological changes are more apparent later in the course of PCS. Decreased ability to concentrate and slowness in mental function can occur, particularly in higher functioning individuals.
Treatment for PCS is primarily time. Many of the symptoms of PCS will clear within days to a few weeks. A typical time for clearing of symptoms is usually 3 months and as much as 6 months. In 10-15% of the cases it can take a year or more for improvement. The earlier the diagnosis is made, generally the better the outcome. Headaches and dizziness complaints most commonly bring the patient to a doctor’s office. Patients may have tension headaches, migraine headaches or a condition known as occipital neuralgia. The latter is an injury to the occipital nerve at the base of the skull. The most effective treatment for this condition is an occipital nerve block. Other headache conditions are treated with the usual preventative migraine medications protocols. As anxiety, irritability and depression are common symptoms of PCS, the antidepressant medications are the most effective treatment for both the headaches and psychological symptoms. Antidepressant medications have been used for decades in controlling migraine and other headache disorders. Over-the-counter analgesics can be used to relieve headache and neck pains. Narcotics should be avoided as they are addictive and do not help the overall patient outcome. Mayo Clinic has an excellent, comprehensive summary of post-concussion syndrome.
In patients who have persistent complaints of memory loss, concentration difficulties, forgetfulness, anxiety and depression, neuropsychological testing followed by counseling can be helpful in patient management and improvement of symptoms. Testing is usually not done for at least 3-6 months following the head injury. This is because so many patients will spontaneously improve over this time period. Once testing is completed, the psychologist can help the patient through counseling to improve their overall well being. Other diagnostic tests may be performed and can include MRI brain studies, EEG or PET scan.
Prognosis for patients with PCS is excellent in the majority of the cases. Most patients are back to their normal baseline within a few weeks, with a few taking as long a 3 months. It is far less common for patients to continue having symptoms beyond this. It is estimated that only about 15% of patients with PCS will have symptoms a year or more. Early treatment by experienced neurologists or other physicians who have training in treatment of concussion, traumatic brain injuries and post-concussion syndrome are important in improving a patient’s quality of life in as short of period of time as possible.