Head Injury First Aid: What to Do if You Suspect a Head Injury

Head Injury First Aid

Did you know that only 22 out of 50 states have a helmet law in place? That means more than half our nation’s lawmakers aren’t using their heads—and if they sustain a traumatic brain injury, they might not be able to.

The brain is one of the body’s most sensitive and complex organs, making any head injury an emergency. Are you familiar enough with head injury first aid to save a life in an emergency scenario? 

We’ve created this how-to guide to provide the essential information to begin treating a head injury on your own through first aid in the workplace. With that said, always consult a medical professional if you or a loved one sustains an injury to the head or neck. All head injuries are severe and potentially disabling without proper medical intervention. 

Still, there’s a lot you can do in the immediate aftermath. Read on to learn all there is to know about head injury treatment. 

What Qualifies as a Head Injury?

By definition, a head injury is any trauma to the head or brain, including the scalp and skin. We usually divide those injuries into two categories: open and closed. 

An open head injury is the most severe form of head injury. This is usually the result of high-speed scenarios, such as car accidents or gun incidents. It is an open injury if the skull has cracked or something has penetrated the brain.

A closed head injury is less severe but still an emergency. It refers to head trauma without penetration of the skull or brain. Many recreational accidents and sports injuries qualify as closed head injuries. 

A few specific conditions qualify as brain injuries, including:

  • Concussions
  • Scalp lacerations
  • Fractures of the skull (with or without penetration)

Concussions are the most common form of closed head injury. In a concussion, the traumatic force shakes the brain and causes it to move around in the skull. Though common, a concussion still qualifies as an emergency.

If you or someone around you experiences trauma to the head, seek medical attention whether or not the injury is bleeding. A TBI can cause long-term disabling symptoms, and multiple TBIs can often cause permanent damage. You can learn more facts about traumatic brain injuries here. 

Common Head Injury Symptoms

Sometimes you aren’t present when an individual sustains a head injury. For example, you might encounter the aftermath of an accident, or your child might return home having fallen off their bike or playground equipment. It’s essential to identify the symptoms of a head injury so that you can act quickly and prevent further damage. 

In some cases, symptoms may take some time to appear. This is because one of the most common invisible symptoms is bleeding or bruising of the brain. Trauma can lead to inflammation, causing the brain to swell, at which point symptoms may become evident. 

Look for the following signs of head injury during a head injury assessment:

  • Confusion
  • Trouble thinking
  • Speech doesn’t make sense
  • Drowsiness or changes in consciousness
  • Difficult to rouse
  • Headaches
  • Stiff neck
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting 
  • Seeing lights
  • Seizure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pupils are unequal (i.e., one dilated, one not)
  • Balance problems

The above symptoms can range from mild to severe. For example, changes in consciousness can range from mild sleepiness to coma. Regardless of how severe the symptoms appear, every head injury is an emergency, and you should call 911 immediately.

Head Injury First Aid

There are several steps to take while you wait for emergency medical professionals to arrive. We’ve outlined these, plus other vital considerations, below.

1. Check Airways

First aid for all injuries begins when you check the patient’s airways to see if they’re breathing. If not, you or a qualified individual should begin CPR.

When you call 911, be sure to tell the operator that the injured individual is not breathing. They may be able to provide guidance, even if you are not CPR certified. Keeping the person breathing is more important than any of the steps below.

2. Stabilize the Individual

You must act as if the individual has a neck injury until proven otherwise (which may not happen until they’ve had imaging tests at the hospital). Place your hands on either side of the individual’s head to keep it in place and limit movement. Try to keep the head in line with the spine.

3. Address Bleeding

If the individual has any open wounds, attempt to stop the bleeding. Apply firm pressure with a clean cloth.

If the cloth becomes saturated with blood, do not remove it. Leave it in place and apply another cloth on top. 

4. Apply Ice

If you observe any swelling, it’s appropriate to apply ice. Cover the ice, so it doesn’t come into direct contact with the individual’s skin. 

Considerations for Open Head Injuries

In the case of a suspected fracture or open head injury in which you can see brain matter, move the head as little as possible. Do not apply pressure to the wound site. If any debris is present, leave it in place until EMS arrives.

If possible, cover the injury with a sterile dressing, but do not touch the injury site.

Considerations for Vomiting 

If the injured person is vomiting, you must move them into the recovery position. Remember, you must assume the individual has a neck or spinal injury until told otherwise. Attempt to roll the head and body as a single unit while holding the head and neck in place.

It is very common for children to vomit at least once following traumatic injuries to the head. This is normal and not necessarily a sign of an emergency. If they vomit more than once, it could indicate more severe head trauma.

Always contact emergency medical services regardless of whether or not the injured individual vomits. When you call to report the incident, let the operator know if the patient has vomited (and how many times).

What Not to Do if You Suspect Head Trauma

If a person you love has a head injury, your natural inclination is to do as much as possible to help them. In the case of head trauma, however, less is usually more. The most important thing to do is ensure they are breathing, stabilize the head and neck, and try to staunch bleeding. 

Leave the rest to the EMS, who have the training and equipment necessary to further assess and assist the patient. 

There are a few steps that may be actively harmful to an individual who has experienced head trauma. Avoid the following:

  • Moving the person (unless they are actively in danger)
  • Picking up and holding an injured child
  • Remove any foreign objects from an open wound
  • Wash a head wound
  • Shake a person who is experiencing confusion or losing consciousness
  • Remove a helmet following a motorcycle or bicycle accident

These steps might seem intuitive, but they can make injuries much worse. In the event of a traumatic brain injury, the less you do, the safer the individual will be. 

Start With Prevention

It’s better for everyone involved if you never need to follow the above steps. While some injuries are purely accidental and impossible to prevent, many head injuries are avoidable.

The first key to head injury prevention is to use all available safety equipment during high-risk activities. Don’t forget more mundane, everyday activities like riding bikes or in cars. Helmets and seatbelts can save lives.

Most head trauma is the result of motor vehicle accidents. One of the best ways to avoid injury is to ensure you do not drink and drive. Do not get into a vehicle with an individual if you suspect they have been drinking.

Additionally, many young people sustain head injuries during athletics. Provide your child with the proper protective gear and insist they wear it during all games and practices. Brain injuries can be more dangerous during periods of development, and a helmet can prevent permanent brain damage.

Brush Up on Head Injury First Aid

If you can keep a cool head in an emergency situation, then you also have a responsibility to use your head to address emergent head injuries. Even knowing a little about head injury first aid can help save a life. In the meantime, encourage your loved ones to wear helmets in high-risk scenarios so you won’t need to use any of this knowledge! 

It’s always wise to know how to accomplish a task in a pinch. Luckily, the blog is full of how-to guides to help you perform any job you can think up. Check out our other posts for more great ways to use your head.