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The Truth Behind Drinking Alcohol with a Concussion

Clinically Reviewed by: Charee Marquez, LMFT

Drinking alcohol with a concussion or mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) can significantly impair the recovery process and exacerbate concussion symptoms. Alcohol consumption affects brain chemistry and function, potentially leading to further injury and prolonged recovery. The brain injury association highlights that alcohol intake can worsen cognitive difficulties, memory problems, and balance issues, all common symptoms of a concussion. Healthcare professionals strongly advise against consuming alcohol during the brain injury recovery period to prevent persistent symptoms and ensure optimal healing. Understanding the risks associated with alcohol use post-concussion is crucial for brain injury prevention, preventing additional damage, and promoting effective brain injury recovery.

What is a Concussion?

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) that occurs when a blow to the head or body causes the brain to move rapidly within the skull. This movement can result in chemical changes in the brain and, in some cases, damage to brain cells. Concussions are common and can happen during various activities, such as sports, falls, or motor vehicle accidents.

What Causes a Concussion?

A concussion is typically caused by a sudden, violent movement of the head or a blow to the head or body that causes the brain to move rapidly within the skull. This sudden movement can result in stretching and damaging brain cells, leading to temporary changes in brain function. Concussions can occur in various situations, including:

  1. Sports Injuries: Concussions are common in contact sports such as football, soccer, hockey, and boxing, where athletes may experience collisions, falls, or direct blows to the head during play.

  2. Motor Vehicle Accidents: Car accidents, motorcycle accidents, and other motor vehicle collisions can result in concussions due to the rapid deceleration or impact forces involved.

  3. Falls: Falls are a leading cause of concussions, particularly among young children and older adults. Falls from heights, slipping, or tripping can lead to head injuries that result in concussions.

  4. Assaults: Intentional acts of violence, such as physical assaults or domestic violence, can cause concussions when individuals experience blows or trauma to the head during altercations.

  5. Recreational Activities: Activities such as cycling, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and horseback riding carry a risk of falls or collisions that can result in concussions.

  6. Military Combat: Military personnel are at risk of concussions due to exposure to blast waves from explosions, direct blows to the head, or impacts from shrapnel or debris during combat situations.

It’s important to note that concussions can occur even without direct impact to the head. For example, whiplash-type injuries that cause rapid acceleration and deceleration of the head and neck can also result in concussions. Additionally, concussions can vary in severity, with some causing mild symptoms that resolve relatively quickly, while others may result in more prolonged or severe symptoms requiring medical attention and management.

Signs and Symptoms of a Concussion

Concussions can manifest in a variety of signs and symptoms, which may appear immediately after the injury or develop gradually over time. It’s crucial to recognize these signs and symptoms to seek appropriate medical attention and ensure proper management of the injury. Here are some common signs and symptoms of a concussion:

  1. Headache: One of the most common symptoms of a concussion is a headache, which may vary in intensity and may persist or worsen over time.

  2. Dizziness or Balance Problems: Individuals with a concussion may experience feelings of dizziness, lightheadedness, or problems with balance and coordination.

  3. Nausea or Vomiting: Concussions can cause nausea and may lead to vomiting, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the injury.

  4. Fatigue or Drowsiness: Some individuals may feel unusually tired, fatigued, or drowsy following a concussion, even if they have not engaged in physically strenuous activities.

  5. Sensitivity to Light or Noise: Concussion can result in heightened sensitivity to light (photophobia) or noise (phonophobia), making it challenging to tolerate bright lights or loud sounds.

  6. Blurred Vision or Double Vision: Visual disturbances such as blurred vision, double vision (diplopia), or difficulty focusing may occur with a concussion.

  7. Confusion or Disorientation: Individuals may feel confused, disoriented, or have difficulty concentrating or remembering events following a concussion.

  8. Memory Problems: Concussions can affect short-term memory, leading to difficulty recalling recent events or information.

  9. Difficulty Sleeping: Some individuals may experience changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia, disrupted sleep, or excessive drowsiness.

  10. Mood Changes: Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, or feelings of sadness or depression may occur following a concussion.

  11. Slurred Speech: Speech may be slurred or difficult to understand due to the effects of a concussion on brain function.

  12. Loss of Consciousness: While loss of consciousness is not always present with a concussion, it can occur in some cases, particularly with more severe head injuries.

It’s important to note that not all signs and symptoms may be present, and the severity of symptoms can vary from person to person.

Diagnosing a Concussion

Diagnosing a concussion typically involves a combination of medical history, physical examination, and neurological assessment. Healthcare professionals, such as physicians, neurologists, or sports medicine specialists, use a variety of tools and techniques to evaluate individuals who may have sustained a concussion. Here are the key steps involved in diagnosing a concussion:

  1. Medical History:

    • The healthcare provider will begin by asking questions about the circumstances of the injury, including how it occurred, any symptoms experienced at the time of the injury, and any loss of consciousness or amnesia.
    • They will also inquire about the individual’s medical history, including any previous head injuries, history of concussions, or underlying medical conditions that may affect recovery.
  2. Symptom Assessment:

    • The healthcare provider will assess the individual’s current symptoms related to the injury. Common symptoms of a concussion include headache, dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light or noise, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and mood changes.
    • The individual may be asked to rate the severity of each symptom and provide information about when the symptoms began and how they have progressed over time.
  3. Physical Examination:

    • A physical examination will be conducted to evaluate for signs of head injury, such as bruising, swelling, or lacerations.
    • The healthcare provider will assess neurological function, including reflexes, coordination, strength, and sensation, to detect any abnormalities that may indicate a concussion or other neurological injury.
  4. Neurological Assessment:

    • Specific neurological tests may be performed to assess cognitive function, balance, and coordination. These tests may include the Standardized Assessment of Concussion (SAC), the Balance Error Scoring System (BESS), and the King-Devick test.
    • The healthcare provider may also conduct tests of memory, attention, and concentration, such as the SCAT5 (Sport Concussion Assessment Tool) or the ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) test.
  5. Imaging Studies:

    • In most cases, imaging studies such as CT scans or MRI scans are not necessary to diagnose a concussion, as they may not show visible abnormalities in the brain. However, in cases of suspected severe head injury or complications, imaging may be performed to rule out other conditions.
  6. Baseline Testing:

    • Some individuals, particularly athletes, may undergo baseline testing before participating in sports or activities that carry a risk of head injury. Baseline testing involves assessing cognitive function, balance, and other neurological parameters when the individual is healthy and uninjured. This information can be used for comparison if a concussion occurs later.
  7. Follow-Up Evaluation:

    • Individuals suspected of having a concussion may require follow-up evaluation to monitor symptoms, track recovery progress, and determine readiness to return to activities. Follow-up appointments may involve repeating neurological assessments, symptom monitoring, and clearance for gradual return to activity based on symptom resolution.

Overall, diagnosing a concussion requires careful evaluation by a healthcare professional trained in recognizing and managing head injuries. Early detection and appropriate management are essential for minimizing the risk of complications and promoting optimal recovery. If you suspect a concussion or have concerns about a head injury, it’s important to seek medical attention promptly.

 

Side Effects and Risks of a Concussion

Concussions can have both short-term and long-term side effects, which can vary in severity depending on the individual and the nature of the injury. It’s important to recognize these side effects to ensure proper management and monitoring of the injury. Here are some short-term and long-term side effects of a concussion:

Short-Term Side Effects:

  1. Headache: One of the most common short-term side effects of a concussion is a headache, which may be mild to severe and can persist for days or weeks after the injury.
  2. Dizziness and Balance Problems: Concussions can cause feelings of dizziness, vertigo, or imbalance, making it difficult to stand or walk steadily.
  3. Nausea and Vomiting: Some individuals may experience nausea or vomiting shortly after sustaining a concussion, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the injury.
  4. Fatigue and Drowsiness: Concussions can lead to feelings of fatigue, tiredness, or excessive drowsiness, which may interfere with daily activities and functioning.
  5. Sensitivity to Light and Noise: Photophobia (sensitivity to light) and phonophobia (sensitivity to noise) are common short-term side effects of concussions, making it challenging to tolerate bright lights or loud sounds.
  6. Cognitive Symptoms: Concussions can impair cognitive function, leading to difficulties with concentration, attention, memory, and information processing.
  7. Mood Changes: Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, or feelings of sadness or depression may occur shortly after a concussion, affecting emotional well-being and behavior.
  8. Sleep Disturbances: Changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia, disrupted sleep, or excessive drowsiness, are common short-term side effects of concussions.

Long-Term Side Effects:

  1. Post-Concussion Syndrome: Some individuals may experience persistent symptoms lasting weeks, months, or even years after the initial injury, a condition known as post-concussion syndrome (PCS). Symptoms of PCS can include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, cognitive difficulties, and mood disturbances.
  2. Memory and Cognitive Problems: Long-term cognitive problems, such as difficulty with memory, attention, and executive function, can persist in some individuals following a concussion.
  3. Increased Risk of Future Concussions: Individuals who have experienced one concussion may be at increased risk of sustaining additional concussions in the future, especially if proper precautions are not taken to prevent further head injuries.
  4. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE): While rare, repeated head trauma, including concussions, has been associated with the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease characterized by cognitive decline, mood changes, and behavioral abnormalities.
  5. Emotional and Psychological Impact: Long-term effects of concussions can impact emotional well-being and mental health, leading to increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders.

What is Post Concussion Syndrome?

PCS stands for Post-Concussion Syndrome. It refers to a condition in which individuals experience persistent symptoms following a concussion or mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). While most people recover fully from a concussion within a few days to weeks, some individuals may continue to experience symptoms for an extended period, ranging from weeks to months or even years after the initial injury.

What is CTE?

CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. It is a progressive neurodegenerative brain disease that is believed to result from repeated head traumas, including concussions and other forms of mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). CTE is characterized by the gradual accumulation of abnormal proteins in the brain, which can lead to widespread damage to brain tissue and eventual cognitive, behavioral, and motor impairments.

CTE is most commonly associated with individuals who have a history of participation in contact sports such as football, hockey, boxing, and soccer, where repeated blows to the head are common. However, it can also occur in individuals who have experienced head trauma in other settings, such as military combat or physical assaults.

Alcohol and The Brain

At its core, alcohol’s classification as a depressant underscores its capacity to slow down cognitive functions, resulting in a perceptible decrease in mental acuity. This phenomenon manifests as impaired decision-making, reduced attention span, and compromised memory recall. Concurrently, alcohol’s influence on the central nervous system contributes to disruptions in coordination, affecting motor skills and physical dexterity.

Delving into the intricacies of alcohol’s impact on brain function reveals its ability to modify neurotransmitter levels, an integral aspect of the brain’s communication network. The delicate balance of neurotransmitters, serving as chemical messengers between nerve cells, plays a pivotal role in regulating mood and behavior. By interfacing with this intricate system, alcohol introduces alterations that reverberate throughout the neural landscape.

One such neurotransmitter affected by alcohol is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory messenger that promotes relaxation and a sense of calmness. Alcohol enhances the inhibitory effects of GABA, contributing to the sedative properties observed during moderate alcohol consumption. Simultaneously, alcohol influences the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, fostering the initial feelings of euphoria and contentment.

Can You Drink Alcohol with a Concussion?

It is generally advisable to avoid consuming alcohol while recovering from a concussion. A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury, and during the recovery period, the brain is in a vulnerable state. Alcohol can have various effects on the brain, including impairing cognitive function and coordination. Combining alcohol with the potential lingering effects of a concussion could exacerbate symptoms and delay the healing process.

Side Effects and Risks of Drinking with a Concussion

Short-Term Effects and Risks of Drinking with a Concussion:

  1. Increased Cognitive Impairment:

    • Alcohol, even in moderate amounts, can exacerbate cognitive impairment associated with a concussion. This may lead to heightened confusion and difficulties in decision-making.
  2. Worsened Coordination:

    • Drinking alcohol can further impair coordination, which may already be compromised due to the effects of the concussion. This increases the risk of accidents or falls.
  3. Interference with Recovery:

    • Alcohol consumption may interfere with the brain’s natural healing processes after a concussion, potentially prolonging the recovery period.
  4. Dehydration:

    • Both alcohol and a concussion can contribute to dehydration. Consuming alcohol may intensify dehydration, leading to symptoms such as headaches and dizziness.
  5. Masking Symptoms:

    • Alcohol can mask or alter concussion symptoms, making it challenging to accurately gauge the extent of recovery or identify worsening symptoms.

Long-Term Effects and Risks of Drinking with a Concussion:

  1. Prolonged Recovery:

    • Regular alcohol consumption during concussion recovery may impede the healing process, leading to a prolonged recovery period.
  2. Increased Risk of Complications:

    • Alcohol’s effects on blood vessels may increase the risk of bleeding, which can be particularly concerning in the context of a recent concussion.
  3. Exacerbation of Mental Health Issues:

    • Combining alcohol with a concussion may contribute to or exacerbate mental health issues, including mood swings, irritability, and anxiety.
  4. Impaired Neurological Healing:

    • Chronic alcohol use can impair neurological healing, potentially hindering the restoration of normal brain function after a concussion.
  5. Addiction Risk:

  6. Increased Likelihood of Accidents:

    • The combination of alcohol and a concussion heightens the risk of accidents and injuries, further jeopardizing the individual’s overall well-being.
  7. Weakened Immune System:

    • Both alcohol and a concussion can weaken the immune system. Combined, they may make the individual more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
  8. Compromised Rehabilitation Efforts:

    • The impaired cognitive and motor functions associated with alcohol consumption may compromise rehabilitation efforts designed to address the effects of the concussion.

It’s crucial to note that the effects of alcohol on an individual recovering from a concussion can be unpredictable and vary based on factors such as the severity of the concussion, the individual’s overall health, and the amount of alcohol consumed. As a general guideline, healthcare professionals often recommend abstaining from alcohol during the recovery period after a concussion to optimize healing and minimize potential risks. Consulting with a healthcare provider for personalized advice is recommended in such situations.

Risks of Drinking Alcohol with a Concussion

Drinking alcohol while recovering from a concussion can exacerbate symptoms and increase the risk of complications. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that can impair cognitive function, coordination, and judgment. When combined with the effects of a concussion, alcohol can interfere with the body’s natural healing processes and worsen symptoms. Here are some specific side effects and risks of drinking alcohol with a concussion:

  1. Increased Cognitive Impairment: Concussions can already impair cognitive function, including memory, attention, and information processing. Alcohol further depresses brain activity, leading to increased cognitive impairment and difficulty with concentration, reasoning, and decision-making.

  2. Worsened Balance and Coordination: Both alcohol and concussions can affect balance and coordination. Drinking alcohol while recovering from a concussion can exacerbate these impairments, increasing the risk of falls, accidents, and injuries.

  3. Prolonged Recovery Time: Alcohol consumption can interfere with the body’s natural healing processes, including sleep patterns, inflammation response, and neurotransmitter function. Drinking alcohol while recovering from a concussion may prolong recovery time and delay symptom resolution.

  4. Masking of Symptoms: Alcohol can mask the symptoms of a concussion, making it difficult to assess the severity of the injury and monitor recovery progress accurately. This can delay appropriate medical treatment and increase the risk of long-term complications.

  5. Dehydration: Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it increases urine production and can lead to dehydration. Dehydration can exacerbate concussion symptoms such as headache, dizziness, and fatigue, and impede the body’s ability to heal.

  6. Increased Risk of Secondary Injury: Alcohol consumption can impair judgment and coordination, increasing the risk of accidents or further head injuries. Individuals who have sustained a concussion are already at increased risk of secondary injury, and drinking alcohol can further heighten this risk.

  7. Exacerbation of Mood Changes: Concussions can lead to mood changes such as irritability, anxiety, and depression. Alcohol is known to affect mood and can exacerbate these symptoms, leading to increased emotional distress and impaired coping mechanisms.

  8. Interference with Medications: Individuals recovering from a concussion may be taking medications to manage symptoms such as pain or nausea. Drinking alcohol can interfere with the effectiveness of these medications and may increase the risk of adverse drug interactions.

In summary, drinking alcohol while recovering from a concussion is not recommended. It can worsen symptoms, prolong recovery time, increase the risk of complications, and impair judgment and safety. Individuals who have sustained a concussion should prioritize rest, hydration, and avoiding alcohol and other substances that may interfere with the healing process. If you have any questions or concerns about alcohol consumption and concussion recovery, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance and recommendations.

Practical Tips for Concussion Recovery

If you or someone you know has a concussion, here are some practical tips to aid in the recovery process:

1. Rest and Limit Alcohol Consumption

Rest is crucial for the brain to heal. Avoid alcohol during this time, as it can impede recovery and prolong symptoms.

2. Follow Medical Advice

Always follow the guidance of healthcare professionals regarding your concussion recovery. They will provide personalized advice tailored to your condition.

3. Avoid Risky Activities

Refrain from participating in activities that could result in another head injury. Protect yourself during sports or recreational activities.

4. Monitor Symptoms

Keep track of your symptoms and communicate any changes to your healthcare provider. This will help them gauge your progress accurately.

While the occasional drink may not cause significant harm, it’s generally advisable to avoid alcohol consumption during the recovery period following a concussion. Prioritizing rest, hydration, and proper nutrition are essential for supporting the body’s natural healing processes and minimizing the risk of complications. If you have any questions or concerns about alcohol consumption and concussion recovery, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance and recommendations tailored to your individual circumstances.

Conclusion

Avoiding alcohol is essential for individuals recovering from a concussion or mild traumatic brain injury. Alcohol can exacerbate symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and mood changes, and can significantly impede the healing process. Moderate alcohol consumption can trigger seizures, impair cognitive function, and lead to further brain damage, making it vital to follow medical professional advice and abstain from drinking alcohol. Ensuring a safe and effective recovery involves recognizing the impact of alcohol on brain cells and committing to practices that support brain function and overall health. By avoiding alcohol, individuals can improve their chances of a full recovery and reduce the risk of long-term complications.

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FAQs

Even if your symptoms have improved, it’s best to wait until you receive clearance from a healthcare professional before consuming alcohol. The brain needs time to fully recover, and any alcohol intake can still impede the healing process.

The recovery time varies for each individual and depends on the severity of the concussion. Always consult with your doctor to determine when it is safe to resume alcohol consumption.

Yes, even a single drink can have an impact on your recovery, as alcohol can disrupt the healing process and exacerbate symptoms.

Absolutely! Engage in activities that don’t involve alcohol, such as reading, listening to music, or spending time with friends and family.

It’s essential to avoid alcohol and any substances that may interfere with the healing process. Consult your doctor before taking any medication during your recovery.

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