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Post-concussive syndrome: What patients and providers need to know

Each year an estimated 1.7 million traumatic brain injuries occur in the United States. Nearly 80% of these are treated and released from an emergency department (ED), and 75% of traumatic brain injuries are diagnosed as concussion. These concussions are often a result of falls, motor vehicle accidents, and sports injuries. While many patients completely recover, others have lingering symptoms that may impact their life for weeks, months, or even years. Those patients suffer from post-concussive syndrome (PCS).

Case study: A patient with PCS

Charles is a 44-year-old man who slipped on an ice-covered sidewalk and fell backwards, hitting his head on concrete. He lost consciousness for a few seconds. Within minutes he had a severe headache, started repeating himself, and became very forgetful. His wife drove him to the ED.

After several hours of observation in the ED and a normal computed tomography (CT) scan, Charles was diagnosed with a concussion and released to go home. He and his wife were not given any instructions on what might be expected following a concussion, except that the physician thought he would be able to return to work 2 days later.

Charles had a constant headache, nausea, dizziness, ringing in his ears and slept most of the day. He discomfort persisted for almost a week, so he was unable to return to work as expected. His wife noticed he wasn’t thinking clearly, so she took him to a larger hospital where a repeat CT was conducted. The repeat CT showed no abnormalities and no changes from the first CT. The physician diagnosed Charles with post-concussive syndrome and talked with him and his wife about the symptoms and what could be expected. He also referred Charles to a neuropsychologist for evaluation and testing. Testing showed deficits in his short-term memory and concentration.

During the next several weeks, Charles realized he had a hard time being around groups of people and was more irritable. He also continued to have problems with dizziness, tiredness, balance, and memory. He wasn’t able to return to work for 6 weeks. For the next several months Charles had frequent headaches, noise bothered him, and he felt easily distracted and had a difficult time concentrating. A year later his wife noticed Charles had significant mood changes so he returned to the neuropsychologist who referred him to a psychologist. Charles was diagnosed with depression and was prescribed citalopram. Two and a half years after his fall, Charles says he feels he continues to have a lack of patience and intolerance of people. He feels he isn’t depressed but just doesn’t deal with stress well.

Defining PCS

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that may change how the brain functions. Concussions also can occur from a blow to the body that causes the head and brain to move quickly back and forth. Loss of consciousness isn’t required for a diagnosis of concussion. Signs and symptoms of concussion usually fall into four categories: cognitive, physical, emotional, and sleep. Difficulty thinking clearly, headache, nausea, balance problems, irritability, sadness, and sleeping more or less than usual are some of the symptoms that may be present with concussion. Some of these symptoms may appear right away and go away within a few days. However, for some patients, these symptoms may last longer.

PCS refers to persistent, concussive-like symptoms that develop after a traumatic brain injury. About 30% to 80% of patients with mild to moderate brain injury experience some symptoms of PCS. Symptoms typically start within a few days after the head injury and may persist for several months; 15% of patients will have symptoms 1 year later, and possibly beyond. Typically, patients don’t have neurologic deficits on examination, but report headache, fatigue, dizziness, impaired memory, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and irritability, as well as lowered tolerance of stress or alcohol. At least three of those symptoms are needed to meet International Classification of Diseases ICD-10 criteria for PCS. Several other associated symptoms are known to exist in patients with PCS (See Symptoms of PCS.)

Symptoms of PCS

Cognitive Physical Behavioral
Slowed response speed Headache Depression
Mental fogginess Nausea Anxiety
Poor concentration Vision changes Panic attacks
Distractibility Light sensitivity Irritability
Trouble learning Tinnitus Personality changes
Memory difficulty Noise sensitivity Increased emotionality
Disorganization Dizziness Clinginess
Problem-solving difficulty Vertigo Apathy
Balance problems Lowered frustration tolerance
Fatigue Increased sensitivity to alcohol
Sleep disturbance

In a small number of cases, PCS is more persistent or even permanent.


On autopsy, it’s been found that patients with PCS have damage in the white matter of the brain. White matter is located in the inner part of the brain and consists of the axons of neurons that make the connections within the brain. These neural cells require precise balance and distance to process and transmit messages between cells. With concussion, there is damage to these neurons along with tiny hemorrhages and swelling in the brain. This damage may cause problems in how the brain processes information, which possibly leads to the clinical signs and symptoms of PCS. The degree of severity of PCS after minor head injury has been shown to be significantly correlated with the degree of damage to white matter. Unfortunately, common tests in the clinical setting typically do not identify this physical damage.


In patients with symptoms of concussion and PCS, brain imaging scans, such as CT scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), often are normal. These brain imaging technologies can detect more serious problems like major bleeding, but often cannot detect the microscopic brain damage in concussions. Newer, more sophisticated imaging technologies are more effective in capturing the damage that occurs in concussion. In some patients with cognitive symptoms of PCS, a significant reduction in brain activity has been evident in functional MRI exams. Unfortunately, this equipment often isn’t readily available and is quite expensive.

A patient with PCS usually has a normal neurological exam, but reports more subjective symptoms. Neuropsychological testing may reveal difficulties in concentration, memory, language, and executive tasks. The British Columbia Post Concussion Symptoms Inventory, the Post Concussion Syndrome Checklist, the Post Concussion Syndrome Symptoms Scale, and the Rivermead Post Concussion Symptoms Questionnaire are known to be reliable tools that consistently identify the symptoms of PCS.

Both Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics (ANAM) and Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) test cognitive function before injury and compares it with function after injury.

ANAM is used in the military setting and is a proven computer-based cognitive assessment tool designed to detect the speed and accuracy of attention, memory, and thinking ability. It records every service member’s performance through responses provided on a computer. ANAM testing is conducted before deployment and can be used to identify and monitor changes in function before and after an injury. It does not diagnose any medical condition.

ImPACT is the first, most-widely used, and most scientifically validated computerized concussion evaluation system. It provides neurocognitive assessment tools and services that are used by medical doctors, psychologists, athletic trainers, and other licensed healthcare professionals to assist them in determining an athlete’s ability to return to play after suffering a concussion. It involves assessment of the athlete before the athletic playing season begins (pre-injury) as well as after injury.

Risk factors and predictors

Concussions resulting from car collisions, falls, assaults, and sports injuries are commonly associated with PCS. The severity of the type of injury does not predict whether a person will develop PCS, but there are other factors that may influence the likelihood:

  • Female gender
  • Older age
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • History of headaches or prior traumatic brain injury
  • History of psychiatric illness such as depression or anxiety

Patients who had strong concerns about their injury, had a more difficult time coping with their injury, and those who reported earlier complaints of symptoms are also known to be at greater risk for a slow recovery and development of PCS.

Screening patients in the ED for immediate memory problems, delayed memory, and severity of injury-related headache may help identify patients at risk for PCS.


Treatment in the ED may include prescriptions for pain medications and anti-nausea medications. However, no medication prescribed at discharge from the ED has been proven to change the course of PCS. At follow-up visits, providers typically develop an individualized treatment plan to alleviate the patient’s ongoing symptoms. Treatment plans often include prescriptions for antidepressants. For example, amitriptyline may be prescribed for post-trauma headaches as well as for symptoms such as irritability, dizziness, insomnia, and depression.

Nonpharmacologic therapy may include early psychological intervention and cognitive rehabilitation as well as physical and occupational therapy. Tips to aid recovery following a concussion include:

  • Get plenty of sleep at night
  • Rest during the day
  • Avoid physically demanding activities or activities that require a lot of concentration
  • Do not drink alcohol or use other non-prescribed drugs.

Adequate rest is vitally important because it helps the brain to heal. Slowly and gradually returning to work or school is advised. If symptoms return or a patient develops new symptoms as activity increases, it is a sign that the patient needs to cut back on his or her activity level.

Did you know?

  • Most concussions do not involve loss of consciousness.
  • Concussions typically do not appear on CT scans or MRI.
  • Symptoms of concussion may last weeks, months, or years.
  • Multiple concussions can have long-lasting life changes.

Suggestions for nurses

Patients diagnosed with concussion have varying degrees and types of PCS symptoms. Though a concussion and PCS may slow a person down, it’s usually not life-threatening. However, this injury can have serious and long-term impact on a person’s physical, cognitive, and psychological function. That’s why early diagnosis, referral, and patient and family education are critical to achieve the best possible recovery.

It’s important to tell family members of those with a concussion about the symptoms of PCS before the patient is discharged from the ED. Written as well as thorough verbal instructions should be provided to the patient as well as family members. Patients should be encouraged to self-monitor for new symptoms, pace themselves, and seek medical attention if there are concerns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have developed an educational program called Heads Up that provides concussion and mild traumatic brain injury information to aid in the diagnosis and management of patients with concussion. This program includes tool kits, fact sheets, and pocket cards that make it easy for clinicians, patients, and family members to learn about concussions and their effects. These materials are also appropriate for coaches, athletic trainers, school nurses, teachers, counselors, and student athletes. The educational materials for patients include a discharge instruction sheet and wallet card to learn about PCS symptoms and when to return to the ED.

The newest addition to the program is an online course for clinicians that was developed with support from the National Football League. The program, Addressing Concussion in Sports Among Kids and Teens, offers free continuing education credits and provides valuable information that is critical for helping young athletes achieve the best recovery possible. All materials are available online at https://www.cdc.gov/headsup/index.html.

Multifaceted approach

Preventing and managing PCS requires a multifaceted approach. Better diagnostic testing in the clinical setting is warranted, and more technologically advanced brain imaging equipment needs to be readily available and affordable.

Education of medical personnel should include instruction on how to effectively communicate the potential for persistent symptoms of concussion. Patients need to know that recovery from concussion is not always quick and that lingering symptoms may be present for an unknown amount of time.

Use of the post-concussive assessment tools and/or neuropsychological testing should be completed at follow-up appointments for all patients with concussion, whether or not they lose consciousness at the point of injury. Medication management, referral to specialists, and ongoing follow-up should be considered until patients are symptom free or at a level of effective management of the PCS symptoms.

Through these efforts, outcomes for patients with PCS can be improved.

Amy Lavin is a family health nurse practitioner at the Ministry Medical Group Clinic in Woodruff, Wisconsin.

Selected references

Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics (ANAM). U.S. Army Medical Department Web site. http://armymedicine.mil/Documents/R2D-ANAM_Info_Brochure.pdf. Accessed March 1, 2013.

Bay E, Strong CA. Cognitive-representational approach to patient education after mild traumatic brain injury. Adv Emerg Nurs J. 2010;32(3): 247-257.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC). How many people have TBI? http://www.cdc.gov/TraumaticBrainInjury/statistics.html Accessed on March 1, 2013.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC). What are the signs and symptoms of concussion?
http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/signs_symptoms.html Accessed on March 1, 2013.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC). What can I do to feel better after a concussion? http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/feel_better.html. Accessed on March 1, 2013.

ImPACT-Testing and Neurocognitive Assessment Tools. ImPACT Web site. http://www.impacttest.com. Accessed March 1, 2013.

Jotwani V, Harmon KG. Postconcussion syndrome in athletes. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2010;9(1):21-6.

Ryan PB, Lee-Wilk T, Kok BC, Wilk JE. Interdisciplinary rehabilitation of mild TBI and PTSD: a case report. Brain Inj. 2011;25(10):1019-25.

Sheedy J, Harvey E, Faux S, Geffen G, Shores EA. Emergency department assessment of mild traumatic brain injury and the prediction of postconcussive symptoms: a 3-month prospective study. J Head Trauma Rehabil. 2009;24(5):333-43.

Smits M, Houston GC, Dippel DWJ, Wielopolski PA, Vernooij MW, et al. Microstructural brain injury in post-concussion syndrome after minor head injury. Neuroradiology. 2011;53(8):553-63.

Snell DL, Siegert RJ, Hay-Smith EJC, Surgenor LJ. Associations between illness perceptions, coping styles and outcome after mild traumatic brain injury: preliminary results from a cohort study. Brain Inj. 2011;25(11):1126-38.

Sullivan K, Garden NA. Comparison of the psychometric properties of 4 postconcussion syndrome measures in a nonclinical sample. J Head Trauma Rehabil. 2011;26(2):170-6.

Wu-Chen WY, Brady MF. Postconcussive syndrome. In: Ferri’s Clinical Advisor,
. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby; 2011:815.

20 Comments. Leave new

  • Geneva Chadwick
    December 29, 2019 10:39 am

    I have had four concussion over the years and I’m 57 now and I keep headaches all the time and they can’t find nothing to help them sometimes I get dizzy headed with them my balance balance has been off for years and it’s just getting worser could I have post concussion syndrome?

  • I had a severe concussion on may 31st at work on smashed my head on a rock then got dragged along a rock road. the last thing I remember is staring at the ground and thinking how much it was going to hurt. I was awoken by a student yelling my name I had no idea what had happened or where I was there was blood everywhere. since then I basically had to learn simple things like watching an object with both my eyes. I have awful headaches and feel almost lost a lot of the time like I go somewhere but I don’t know how I got there. I have trouble finding words like its there but I can’t say it. I also have much worse anxiety and feel like my personality is not me. I also have started become almost paranoid and I nave started to get such severe nausea I can barley leave my house.

  • I have post concussion syndrome. My concussion was not a blackout and I slowly after having processing issues lost the ability to speak. I had aphasia for three months. I still suffer from emotional dysregulation and migraines, occasionally dizziness. Vestibular therapy helped significantly. Nothing on my mri or ct scans. My personality has changed. I went from and extrovert to introvert and have dealt with depression. I also have have a neuropsychological evaluation and was told that I am highly intelligent and because of this I will maintain awareness of cognitive deficiencies others my not notice or be bothered by.
    I was very fortunate to see Dr. Cantu’s Concussion center in New England. I worked with a concussion specialist for many months. The best tools were rest, flotation therapy and if available medical thc/cbd. For anxiety depression and migraines. God bless you all.

  • This is a very informative and detailed post about what a concussion is, how it develops into post-concussion syndrome (PCS) and symptoms that can be related to PCS. At Cognitive FX we feel the same way and have developed an EPIC Treatment program designed to help individuals recover from post-concussion syndrome whether they have been experiencing symptoms for months or even years. We have over a decade of peer-reviewed published research that supports the very core of our treatment program.

    It is great to see that other professionals are looking at ways to help those who haven’t been able to recover from their concussion and provide informative information to them.

  • I can think back to 3 instances where I am pretty sure I had concussions, 2 out of the 3 I never received medical attention. The one that I did recieve medical attention for was 27 years ago. About 15 years ago I started to have some issues with my Pituitary and 2 hormones, and I seem to have the following symptoms as long as I can remember;

    Slowed response speed, Depression, Mental fogginess, Anxiety ,Poor concentration, Distractibility Irritability, Trouble learning, Tinnitus,Memory difficulty, Noise sensitivity,Increased emotionality
    Disorganization,Dizziness, Apathy, Lowered frustration tolerance, Fatigue, Increased sensitivity to alcohol, Sleep disturbance.

  • mark reichards
    April 25, 2019 10:52 am

    Was in car accident 10yrs ago dx with concussion – pcs still after all these yrs. Had brain mri a few months after was neg then was told yrs later wrong mri was done had another and it showed brain bleed.

  • I had a hard fall on Jan. 26, 2019 on concrete. My head bounced a few times. I was not knocked out but had a cut and sever bruising on the right side of my head and eye area. No knot popped out. I did not go to ER but now I am having headaches in the area that was banged up with dizziness. Is there anything I can do?

  • My mother fell 10 days ago she’s 81 and she hit her head I took her to the ER and they said that there was nothing wrong she would just be in pain for a few days I’m within 24 hours she was starting to lose the ability to control her legs and she started she was nauseous she started throwing up I’m for several hours he had the dry heaves she was in so much pain it was intolerable I called the ER and they told me just to alternate between Tylenol and ibuprofen I did that and by that evening I had to carry her to the car to get her to the emergency room again they were going to send her home and I told him no I didn’t think it was a good idea because she was she couldn’t even function so they admitted her overnight for observation at my request and they did perform is a CAT scan and an x-ray of ribs cuz she also hit her ribs they found nothing she was in that hospital for four days and then she was released to a rehabilitation center she is declining she no longer can wipe herself she has no control over her legs and yesterday she had a mild convulsion like seizure and started throwing up and was completely disconnected from reality for about 10 minutes when this right after she was throwing up I took her blood pressure it was 81 over 69 no one seems to be concerned or even cares about finding out what’s really wrong with her I am trying everything for 10 days I’ve been fighting every possible person in my path trying to stop me I want to take her to a specialist because something is going on there telling me this is normal it is not normal she’s not getting better and nobody will listen to me

  • Marga Draheim
    January 30, 2019 7:52 pm

    Hi, Does the area on the head affect different symptoms of PCS?
    My hubby was hit on the top of the head in the same spot twice not going unconscious and a third time another spot that made him go unconscious a few minutes. The same spot on the top of his head has been a compounded concussion of some of the symptoms. We have adapted to accept his personality but there is frustration with what I expect of him for his children. Maybe you can get to this page to see these replies?
    Thank you again

  • very informative!!!! PTBI 1967

  • Richard and Marga
    January 24, 2019 3:42 pm

    My hubby was hit on top of his head in 1972 and he says he never gets headaches. Have to joke with him that I am his headache. He has some of each of the symptoms of PCS and may be he doesn’t feel headaches?
    Glad to find this information. Thank you.

  • Christina Gabourel
    January 21, 2019 11:26 am

    After 10 years, can drinking wine effect an old concussion?

  • Please help. My husband was hit by a drunk driver two years ago and is still battling post concussive syndrome.
    He has every symptom and with stress they increase. The ringing in his ears has never stopped.
    He has had CT and MRI, dr visits and visited neurologist. All we continue to hear is that it takes time and sometimes it’s life long.
    Really? That’s not an answer one wants to hear. My husband suffers so much. I research and have done so over the last two years. I’m at a lose as to how to help him.
    We live near the St. Louis, Missouri area. I’m even at a loss as to who to see.
    I tried for the first year to get him into Barnes at their concussion clinic. They didn’t accept our insurance. Insanity.
    Any advice you could give me would be greatly appriciated.
    Thank you so much for this article.

  • This is the absolute best article on PCS that I have read. I have read many. I hit my head 11 years ago and have daily headaches and dizziness along with processing, memory issues, light and noise sensitivities.

  • Hayley Stringfield
    October 20, 2017 5:02 pm

    What type of work should someone with PCS try to do if symptoms are frequent with memory loss and balance and headache being the most consistent? I am under the care of a pychiaterist right now .

  • What type of job could someone with these symptoms take on?

  • Institutions
    May 5, 2017 4:09 am

    Very informative article. We were instructed to read this for class at Indiana Wesleyan University.

  • I fell over a year ago and my symptoms come and go. I have headaches, dizziness and have short term memory lost. I am 67 years old and when I fell I hit a concrete wall and a tile floor. However, sometimes I feel OK, however, those times are less and less. Nothing shows up on a CAT scan or MRI.

  • under the behavioral changes on the chart… I am so confused as to what “oranges” refers to, or what it means.


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