Special care is needed after a potential or confirmed concussion. Depending on the severity, you may have to reduce your activity level. You might have to wait a few hours before sleeping and remain under supervision until the short-term symptoms resolve. You may also be told not to drink after a concussion — but why? What’s really at the heart of the problem with combining a concussion and alcohol use?
We find that when people don’t understand the importance of following a specific direction, they may be less likely to comply with it. With that in mind, we’re taking the opportunity to explain the relationship between concussions and alcohol. We’ll discuss why it’s important to avoid drinking after a concussion (or any brain injury), and why it’s vital to follow your doctor’s directions after such an injury.
Why Is the Brain So Delicate After a Concussion?
Understanding the answer to this question starts with learning what happens when you suffer a concussion.
The brain is a soft organ, cushioned to protect against day-to-day bumps and shakes. When an impact is especially violent, however, the brain can collide against the solid walls of the skull and sustain damage. This is a concussion.
The symptoms associated with a concussion include headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to bright lights and vision problems, among others. Essentially, a concussion is an injury to the brain that needs time to heal properly. For it to do so, you need to rest. You also need to avoid activities that put strain on the brain or affect the way it functions.
The Mental Health Impact of Concussions
Even without the influence of alcohol, concussions can cause a lot of damage to a person’s mental health, especially with repeated trauma. Every additional brain injury raises the risk of suffering from conditions like chronic depression and memory loss down the road.
Recent research has uncovered the potential for even more severe damage with a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Individuals in occupations such as professional sports, where violent collisions are more frequent, are especially vulnerable to CTE.
Understanding the Effects of Alcohol on a Concussed Brain
Is it bad to drink with a concussion? The answer a resounding yes, for several reasons.
Alcohol is known as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. It slows down nervous activity in the system’s central organ: the brain. Essentially, the influence of alcohol disrupts the brain’s ability to function at full strength, so to speak.
This can lead to significant negative outcomes during the period after a concussion — also known as the “post-concussion syndrome” period:
- Combining a concussion and alcohol consumption can harm recovery. When alcohol is affecting brain function, it can make it more difficult for the brain to heal.
- Alcohol can increase the severity of a concussion’s aftereffects. When you drink after a concussion, you may experience more dizziness, headaches and other symptoms.
- You may be more sensitive to alcohol after a concussion. While healing from a concussion, alcohol may affect you faster, leading to potentially dangerous levels of intoxication more quickly.
Risks of Drinking Alcohol After a Traumatic Brain Injury
The risks of using drugs or alcohol after a concussion or another traumatic brain injury can be severe and long-lasting. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center clinical neuropsychologist, Alicia Sufrinko, Ph.D. describes why:
“Alcohol and illicit drugs — from marijuana to opioids and psychedelics — particularly affect the body’s central nervous system. Although we don’t yet have well-controlled studies, we do know that some drugs damage or kill brain cells, which may make recovery from concussion take longer or make it more complicated,” says Sufrinko. “They can impact your judgment, balance and coordination, putting you at increased risk of falls and other injuries — including further head injury.”
Aside from the risk of worsening damage or reinjury, drinking after a concussion also leaves you less responsive and alert. Staying alert after suffering a brain injury is important so you can recognize a seizure or other signs of brain trauma. This may not be possible if you’re impaired.
How Long Should You Wait Before Drinking After a Concussion?
The brain is a complex organ, and every injury it sustains heals uniquely, based on the type of injury and severity. Therefore, there’s no standard window of time to wait before drinking after a concussion.
It’s best to wait until all head injury symptoms have resolved and then consult your doctor for a final assessment. They can advise you if you should continue being extra-cautious or if you can begin to resume normal activities.
To be safe, when you start drinking again, you should do so gradually. Try not to exceed a safe amount, and track how you’re feeling when you drink. It’s possible for the effects of a brain injury to linger without noticeable symptoms.
What If You Can’t Just “Not Drink”?
If you have issues with alcohol dependence or addiction, giving it up after a concussion may be easier said than done. Many people struggle with alcoholism and experience intense withdrawal symptoms if they quit using it abruptly. This can make dealing with the symptoms of a concussion more uncomfortable and potentially more dangerous.
Getting Help With Substance Abuse From FHE Health
Brain injuries are a serious matter, and it’s critical to avoid taking risks when it comes to your long-term health. That’s why it’s so important to prioritize your sobriety when drinking comes with long-term risks.
If you or a loved one is struggling to control your drinking, it’s never too late to ask for help. At FHE Health, we have a range of treatment programs to help you take your first step toward sobriety. Call us at (833) 596-3502 to learn more.