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Head Injuries in Athletes

Recognize the different types of sports head injuries


Updated November 15, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Getting a mild bump on the head is not uncommon for anyone who plays sports, but head injuries in athletes can range from mild to severe and sometimes the signs of a serious head injury don't always appear immediately. Even a minor bump can turn into something major, so it's important to know about the different types of head injuries and what to do if you suspect you have one.

Different Types of Sports Head Injuries

Concussions are traumatic head injuries that occur from both mild and severe blows to the head. Concussions can have serious, long-term effects, especially repeat head injuries or cumulative concussions.

All concussions are serious, and ignoring the signs and symptoms of a concussion increases the risk of suffering another, more serious, head injury, neurological impairment and even depression.

Epidural Hematoma

An epidural hematoma is bleeding between the skull and the brain. This injury may occur when an impact to the head lacerates a blood vessel, which then forms a blood clot between the skull and the brain's protective covering (the dura). This clot slowly grows and puts pressure on the brain that, if not treated promptly, can result in death.

The seriousness of an epidural hematoma became clear when actress Natasha Richardson died from what appeared to be a mild head injury during a skiing accident.

Richardson's tragic death brought attention to a previously unknown condition referred to as "talk and die" syndrome in which a head injury victim appears fine at first, but hours or days later develops a headache and other symptoms of an epidural hematoma.

Skull Fracture

It takes a severe impact to the head to result in a skull fracture. When an athlete who has a major head trauma also has blood or clear fluid draining from the ears or nose, or bruising behind the ears or around both eyes, it may indicate a skull fracture and other brain injury and requires immediate medical attention.

Black Eye

A black eye is not uncommon after an injury to the face or the head. Even a minor impact to the face can result in a large, angry-looking "shiner." The majority of black eyes are relatively minor bruises that heal on their own in a about three to five days. Sometimes, a black eye is a warning sign of a more serious head, face or eye injury.


Whiplash (also called cervical hyperextension injury or flexion-extension neck injury) refers to an injury to the soft tissues of the neck including the ligaments, tendons, and muscles. The symptoms of whiplash include neck pain and stiffness.

Fractured Jaw

The most common cause of a broken or dislocated jaw is injury to the face or head. All facial injuries should be treated immediately by emergency medical personnel to prevent serious, long-term problems.

More About: Head Injury and Sports Concussion


Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport: the 3rd International Conference on Concussion in Sport held in Zurich, November 2008. http://bjsm.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/43/Suppl_1/i76

Heegaard WG, Biros MH. Head. In: Marx J. Rosens Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 6th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2006: chap. 38.

University of Pittsburgh, Brain Trauma Research. http://www.neurosurgery.pitt.edu/research/trauma.html

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