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Why Can we Lose Our Memory If we Experience a Concussion?

Sean D. Hollis, a specialist in brain injury explains why we have memory loss and other symptoms of a concussion and provides helpful recovery tips.

By Avery Hurt; Medically Reviewed by Dr. Ahmad Talha Azam
Apr 22, 2024 1:00 PM
woman holding ice pack to her head
(Credit: absolutimages/Shutterstock)


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Concussions are a mild form of traumatic brain injury. 'Mild’ means that most patients make a complete recovery within a week or so. But some of the symptoms experienced in the immediate aftermath of a bang on the head can be disturbing. In addition to headaches, blurry vision, and nausea, some people experience brain fog and memory loss. 

What Happens to the Brain During a Concussion?

When you get a blow to the head, on the soccer field or in a tumble from a bicycle, say, your brain can bang around inside your skull. When this happens, neurons can twist, stretch, and sometimes even break. That’s called diffuse axonal injury, explains Sean D. Hollis, a specialist in brain injury at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 

Sounds scary, doesn't it? In more severe traumatic brain injury, diffuse axonal injury can be very dangerous indeed, but in the case of concussion, it’s usually nothing to worry about. The neurons sort themselves out pretty quickly.

A hit to the head can also cause chemical and metabolic changes that throw off the chemical balance in the neurons and disrupt communications between one neuron and the next.

Read More: What A Concussion Does To Your Brain

What Does a Concussion Feel Like?

The brain generally regains its chemical balance pretty quickly. But in the meantime, you can get some alarming symptoms, including memory loss and brain fog. That’s just what it feels like — your brain is a bit jumbled up and is not making connections as quickly as it usually does.

A small number of people (typically fewer than 10 percent) still have cognitive issues for weeks or months after the initial injury. However, often this is not directly due to the brain injury, explains Hollis. Headache, nausea, and other symptoms of concussion can interfere with sleep, causing cognitive issues. Mood changes or anxiety often follow an accident, and those, too, can mess with your thinking.

The reason for the injury could also exacerbate the cognitive issues. If the brain injury was due to something traumatic, such as a car accident or even a physical attack, that could lead to post-traumatic stress, which can cause or aggravate cognitive problems.

“Often what we see in people with post-concussion syndrome is they're dealing with all these other symptoms that are affecting their cognition,” says Hollis. “But the good news is, for the most part, those symptoms are treatable. If you get your headaches under control, if you get better sleep, if you have medication or counseling to help with your mood, then your cognition may get better as well.“

Read More: What's Really Going on When Your Head Aches?

Recovering from a Concussion

Though concussions typically heal quickly, the brain is more sensitive to damage if it gets walloped again while it is recovering. Though experts aren’t sure how long this vulnerable period lasts, it’s generally thought to be in the neighborhood of 10 days — the time it typically takes to recover from a concussion. That’s why concussion patients are advised to take it easy and stay off the playing field or bike trail until they’ve completely recovered.

Here’s one other thing Hollis wants you to know about recovering from a concussion. “The mind is really powerful in terms of setting expectations,” he says.

If you think your concussion is going to cause permanent cognitive defects, you may become hyperaware of normal forgetting.

"If I go to the grocery store and don't have a list, I'm going to forget something. That's normal. That's just how life goes,” he says. “But somebody with a concussion might go to the grocery store, forget an item, and say, ‘Oh my goodness, that's evidence that I have memory problems.’” And then, they’ll start looking for similar instances of memory difficulty. 

You can avoid this downward spiral by knowing that post-concussion cognitive problems are perfectly normal and almost always short-lived. Still, if you have any worries that you’re not healing as you should, ask your doctor.

Read More: Is It Safe to Sleep After Getting a Concussion?

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