A head injury is any trauma that injures the scalp, skull, or brain. The injury may be only a minor bump on the skull or a serious brain injury.
Head injury can be either closed or open (penetrating).
A closed head injury means you received a hard blow to the head from striking an object, but the object did not break the skull.
An open, or penetrating, head injury means you were hit with an object that broke the skull and entered the brain. This usually happens when you move at high speed, such as going through the windshield during a car accident. It can also happen from a gunshot to the head.
Head injuries include:
Concussion, the most common type of traumatic brain injury, in which the brain is shaken
Accidents at home, work, outdoors, or while playing sports
Most of these injuries are minor because the skull protects the brain. However, some injuries are severe enough to require a stay in the hospital.
The symptoms of a head injury can occur right away, or develop slowly over several hours or days. Even if the skull is not fractured, the brain can bang against the inside of the skull and be bruised. The head may look fine, but problems could result from bleeding or swelling inside the skull.
In any serious head trauma, the spinal cord is also likely to be injured.
Some head injuries cause changes in brain function. This is called a traumatic brain injury. Concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. Symptoms of a concussion can range from mild to severe.
Learning to recognize a serious head injury and give basic first aid can save someone's life.
Get medical help right away if the person:
Becomes very drowsy
Develops a severe headache or stiff neck
Loses consciousness, even briefly
Vomits more than once
For a moderate to severe head injury, take the following steps:
Check the person's airway, breathing, and circulation. If necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR.
If the person's breathing and heart rate are normal but the person is unconscious, treat as if there is a spinal injury. Stabilize the head and neck by placing your hands on both sides of the person's head, keeping the head in line with the spine and preventing movement. Wait for medical help.
Stop any bleeding by firmly pressing a clean cloth on the wound. If the injury is serious, be careful not to move the person's head. If blood soaks through the cloth, do NOT remove it. Place another cloth over the first one.
If you suspect a skull fracture, do NOT apply direct pressure to the bleeding site, and do NOT remove any debris from the wound. Cover the wound with sterile gauze dressing.
If the person is vomiting, roll the head, neck, and body as one unit to prevent choking. This still protects the spine, which you must always assume is injured in the case of a head injury. (Children often vomit once after a head injury. This may not be a problem, but call a doctor for further guidance.)
Apply ice packs to swollen areas.
For a mild head injury, no treatment may be needed. However, the symptoms of a serious head injury can show up later. As a result:
Do NOT drink and drive, and do NOT allow yourself to be driven by someone who you know or suspect has been drinking alcohol or is impaired in another way.
Biros MH, Heegaard WG. Head injury. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al., eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2009:chap 38.
Atabaki SM. Pediatric head injury. Pediatr Rev. 2007;28:215-224.
Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.