If a CT scan can’t diagnose a concussion, why do I need one?

June 26, 2024 – 7 min read

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Young soccer play kicking the ball near goalie.

If you have a head injury, you should immediately seek medical attention, or call 9-1-1. 

When you fall or have any type of injury to your head, it can be particularly serious, as it could affect your brain and other organs. 

The damage that a head injury can cause might not be obvious to you or others, at first, which is why you need a medical professional to take a closer look.

Even though a CT scan (or computerized tomography) cannot diagnose a concussion with certainty, it is still wise to have one performed, and here’s why.

Why you need a CT scan after a head injury

CT scans can show if there is swelling or bleeding in the brain, or a fracture in the skull. The forehead and scalp have a large blood supply, and injury to these areas can often cause bleeding under the skin. 

When the bleeding is in just one area, it causes bruising and swelling, known as a hematoma. Even a minor bump to the head can cause swelling or bleeding.

What is a concussion, and how is it typically diagnosed?

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head. Symptoms can include headache, dizziness, confusion, and sensitivity to light and sound. Concussions are typically diagnosed through a combination of physical exams and imaging studies like a CT scan or MRI

What can a CT scan detect following a head injury?

CT scans can show if there is swelling or bleeding in the brain or a fracture in the skull. After a head injury, a CT scan is usually the best first test for diagnosis. 

It can also help your healthcare provider look for specific signs of a more serious problem.

How does a CT scan help rule out more serious conditions?

When a person has symptoms such as persistent headaches, dizziness, or confusion, a CT scan can help rule out more serious conditions by providing accurate and clear images of the internal structures of the head. 

Healthcare providers can examine the images to look for signs of tumors, hemorrhages, infections, or other abnormal growths that may be causing the symptoms.

Why are concussions challenging to diagnose with imaging, alone?

Because a concussion is an injury to the brain cells, they are considered a microscopic cellular injury which is not visible on many imaging tests, such as a CT scan. 

However, healthcare providers still use CT scans after a head injury because they can diagnose severe conditions that may happen as a consequence of a head injury, such as bleeding in the brain or a fracture in the skull.

women entering a CT machine for a brain scan.

How your CT results can show how severe a concussion is

Although simple concussions do not show up on a CT scan, other issues related to concussion can, such as bleeding and other injuries to the brain and skull. To be safe, many healthcare providers will order a CT scan after an injury to the head.

How can a CT scan help determine the severity of a concussion?

A CT scan can help determine the severity of a concussion by detecting any bleeding in the brain, swelling, or other structural abnormalities that may indicate a more serious head injury. 

What brain changes and injuries can a CT scan identify in people with a concussion?

A CT scan uses a series of X-rays to create a detailed view of the brain. It can quickly visualize fractures and show any signs of bleeding in the brain, blood clots, bruised brain tissue, and brain tissue swelling. 

How do the results from a CT scan influence your treatment options?

If the CT scan shows any health issues, such as abnormalities like lesions, tumors, fracture of the skull, or internal bleeding, your healthcare provider can use these results to develop the best treatment options for you.

How your healthcare provider uses your CT results

Healthcare providers have many diagnostic tools at their disposal, CT scans being one of the most important. 

Your provider may use the results from these tools (CT scans, MRI, physical examinations) in combination with one another to get a clearer picture of your condition.

What immediate information does a CT scan give your healthcare team?

A CT scan of the head helps immediately assess head injuries, skull fractures, severe headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms of aneurysm, bleeding, stroke, and brain tumors. It also helps your healthcare provider to evaluate your face, sinuses, and skull. 

How will my provider use my CT results to make their initial treatment decisions?

When your healthcare provider receives the results of your head CT scan, they will first analyze the images to assess various structures of your brain, such as the skull, brain tissue, and blood vessels. 

They will look for any abnormalities, such as bleeding, tumors, or signs of stroke. Based on these findings, your provider will form initial treatment decisions for you.

What role do CT results play in the long-term management of concussion symptoms?

When there is evidence of a concussion, CT scans are routinely ordered to evaluate the extent of the brain injury. The treatment decisions will be tailored to address the specific condition identified in your head CT results. 

Long after the injury, MRI and CT scans may show brain atrophy, which results when dead or injured brain tissue is reabsorbed following traumatic brain injury (TBI). Because injured brain tissue may not completely recover following TBI, changes due to TBI may be detectable many years after an injury.

How to schedule a CT appointment with us

Reach out to us at American Health Imaging, and we’ll help you schedule an appointment at an imaging center near you, today. 

We’re here to help you get the answers you need.

Frequently asked questions

What is a concussion, and how is it typically diagnosed?

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury, typically diagnosed through a combination of symptoms and a physical examination.

A CT scan can detect fractures, bleeding, brain swelling, and other serious conditions that may accompany a head injury.

CT scans are helpful for ruling out more severe brain injuries that could require immediate treatment, even though a CT scan cannot definitively diagnose concussions, alone.

While a CT scan cannot diagnose concussion severity directly, it can identify complications or injuries that may indicate a more severe impact to the brain.

A CT scan offers quick, vital details about the structural state of the brain, helping healthcare teams make urgent medical decisions.

Your provider will use the CT results to understand the extent of brain injury, and to plan appropriate steps for immediate treatment and monitoring.

CT results help in initial management and monitoring for complications, influencing follow-up care and adjustments in treatment as symptoms evolve.

Concussions primarily affect brain function (rather than brain structure), making them difficult to detect with imaging tests like CT scans, which focus on structural changes.