Never Do This After a Head Injury, Experts Say

Experts share this crucial advice following Bob Saget's fatal injury.

Stand-up comedian and Full House star Bob Saget died suddenly in January at the age of 65. Following the release of autopsy results, in a Feb. 9 statement his family revealed that the cause of death was accidental blunt trauma to the head, a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Saget's family says that the actor "hit the back of his head on something, thought nothing of it and went to sleep" in what they described as "an unwitnessed fall."

Experts from Johns Hopkins Medicine say that head injuries like the one Saget's family described are "one of the most common causes of disability and death in adults." Sadly, they're also on the rise. Each year, 1.7 million people experience a traumatic brain injury, and the CDC estimates that 5.6 million Americans are currently living with the effects of a past TBI.

"This is a time to pause and think about how big a problem head trauma is, both severe head traumas like this and also milder forms that have cumulative effects over time, and the toll that that takes on our communities," Gregory Zipfel, MD, head of the department of neurosurgery at the Washington University School of Medicine in Missouri, told BuzzFeed News after seeing the Saget family's statement. For exactly this reason, experts are now warning the public about how to react to a head trauma—including what never to do. Read on to learn the one mistake you should never make following a traumatic brain injury, and what to do if you witness one in someone else.

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Don't wait to get medical attention following a head injury.

Young female soccer player with head injury at doctor's office

Sanjay Gupta, MD, a leading American neurosurgeon, medical reporter, and writer, told CNN that the single most important thing you can do following a head injury is to get medical attention "as quickly as you can."

Gupta explains that if the brain suffers from invisible internal bleeding, there's a crucial window during which a doctor can relieve cranial pressure to improve your outcome. "If you can take the pressure off of the brain simply by removing some bone, removing this blood collection, take that pressure off the brain as quickly as possible you greatly increase the chances of survival," the neurosurgeon explains. "It's as simple as that. It's just basically a pressure issue at that point. Again, the brain has nowhere to go because it's encased by bone," Gupta adds.

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An exam is especially critical if you notice these symptoms.

Injured woman sitting on hospital bed with nurse woman shining in her eyes with flashlight. Side view of mature female doctor examining patient with bandage on head

Gupta says that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between serious head injuries and those of more moderate consequence. "I don't want to frighten people—people do bump their heads all the time and it turns out to be nothing," he notes.

However, the doctor says that "if it's a severe blow to the head," or if you notice certain symptoms, it's imperative to seek urgent medical care. "Worsening headache, confusion, nausea, vomiting, slurring of speech" may indicate a serious brain trauma. If you notice any of these symptoms—or anything else abnormal in the injured person—call 911 immediately.

Gupta adds that "if you're on blood thinners and especially if you're an older person, those really do increase your chance" of suffering a life-threatening head injury. "Again, it's not common–I don't want to necessarily frighten people— but those are some indicators, some clues, that you should get this checked out," he says.

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Your doctor can run tests to diagnose you quickly.

Doctors watching x-ray of patient.

Whether you've experienced a minor bump or bruise, concussion, skull fracture, hematoma, or something else, an emergency room doctor should be able to quickly help you assess the extent of your damage. "Sometimes it'll just be a neurological exam in the emergency room, sometimes you'll need a CT scan, but there are ways to quickly diagnose this, and ways to quickly do something about this if this is the problem," says Gupta.

It's important to take this step after a blow to the head, regardless of how you feel. "When you injure your brain, it's not like when you injure your ankle and you see it's swollen and hurts," Beth McQuiston, MD, a Chicago-based neurologist, told BuzzFeed News. "You can't see it. So it becomes an invisible injury lurking beneath the surface that can be extremely dangerous," McQuiston adds. Injuries to certain regions of the brain may appear minor, but cause extensive damage. For instance, your temples house the thinnest parts of the skull as well as an important blood vessel—meaning even a minor injury can have life-threatening implications, BuzzFeed reports.

Never leave someone alone if they've had a head injury.

Child with concussion

Experts warn that it's extremely dangerous to be alone after suffering a head trauma—especially since an injured person may not be the best judge of whether they need medical attention. "People can initially look good, but something severe or something serious may be happening inside their skull in the brain that within hours is going to become apparent," warns Zipfel. "If there's nobody around, things can go bad fairly quickly," he adds. Be sure to tell a medical professional if the injured person displays personality changes, appears sleepy, loses consciousness, experiences a seizure, or becomes weak, numb, or lethargic.

The Mayo Clinic adds that after calling 911, you should attempt to keep the injured person still, to avoid further injury until they can be examined by a medical professional. "The injured person should lie down with the head and shoulders slightly elevated," says the organization's site. If the person is bleeding, apply "firm pressure to the wound with sterile gauze or a clean cloth," unless you suspect a skull fracture. Finally, look out for changes in breathing and alertness. "If the person shows no signs of circulation—no breathing, coughing or movement—begin CPR," the Clinic advises.

Finally, experts say that following a head injury, you may experience symptoms for weeks afterward. Though getting timely medical assistance can be crucial immediately following a head injury, you should also follow up on any milder side effects, even once the immediate threat seems to have passed.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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