Introduction 

Severe head injuries require immediate medical attention because there is a risk of potentially serious damage to the brain.

Signs of a severe head injury can include:

  • unconsciousness – either brief (concussion) or for a longer period of time
  • fits or seizures  when the body suddenly moves uncontrollably
  • difficulty speaking or staying awake
  • problems with the senses – such as loss of hearing or double vision
  • repeated vomiting
  • blood or clear fluid coming from the ears or nose
  • memory loss (amnesia)

If you notice any of these symptoms after a head injury, immediately go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Read more about the symptoms of a severe head injury.

Diagnosing a severe head injury

Healthcare professionals use the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) to assess head injuries. This is a scale from 3 to 15 that uses your symptoms to identify how serious the injury is and whether the brain has been damaged (with 3 being most severe and 15 least severe).

A head injury is usually classed as being moderate if someone has a GCS score of 9-12 or severe if they have a score of eight or lower. Some people with significant head injuries have a high GCS score initially, but their score decreases when they are reassessed at a later stage.

Further tests may sometimes be necessary to determine how serious your injury is, such as a computerised tomography (CT) scan.

Read more about how severe head injuries are diagnosed.

Treating a severe head injury

Severe head injuries should always be treated in hospital. Treatment in hospital may involve:

  • observing the condition for any changes
  • running tests to check for further damage
  • treating any other injuries
  • breathing support (ventilation) or brain surgery, in the most severe cases

Most people are able to go home within 48 hours. However, a small number of those admitted to hospital require surgery on their skull or brain.

When you are discharged from hospital, your doctor will give you advice about the best way to help your recovery when you return home.

Read more about how a severe head injury is treated and recovering from a severe head injury.

Complications

A severe head injury may cause a build-up of pressure on the brain because of bleeding, blood clots or a build-up of fluid. This can sometimes lead to brain damage, which can be temporary or permanent.

A severe head injury can also cause other potentially serious complications, including:

  • an infection after a skull fracture
  • post-concussion syndrome – where you experience long-term symptoms after sustaining concussion

Around one in every 2,000 people who attend an A&E department with a head injury dies as a result of their injury.

Read more about complications after a severe head injury.

Preventing head injuries

Although it can be difficult to predict or avoid a head injury, there are some steps you can take to help reduce the risk of serious injury to you or your child.

These include:

  • reducing hazards in the home that may cause a fall
  • ‘childproofing’ your home
  • using the correct safety equipment for work, sport and DIY

Wearing a safety helmet during certain activities, such as skiing or cycling may also help prevent a serious head injury.

Read more about how to prevent head injuries.




Road accidents: taking risks

Nick learned about road safety the hard way. He tells how taking risks as a 'boy racer' changed his life forever.

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

Page last reviewed: 13/01/2014

Next review due: 13/01/2016