What is a head injury?

A head injury is any sort of injury to your brain, skull, or scalp. It can range in severity from a bump or bruise to a major skull fracture requiring surgery. The terms head injury and concussion are often used interchangeably, and (serious) head injury and brain injury are likewise often used interchangeably, but they have their own distinct meaning.

The skull is a strong structure designed to protect the brain; a person may sustain a head injury with extensive cuts and bleeding without the brain being damaged (lasting damage to the brain). However, whenever a head injury occurs, an assessment should be made to check for an injury to the brain.

Damage within the brain may not be visible on a CT or MRI scan; symptoms of a brain injury may be apparent at the time of injury or may only become apparent over subsequent days and weeks. A head injury may appear mild, externally, but there can be damage to the brain which is long-lasting and deeply affecting.

The key is to treat all head injuries seriously, have a medical assessment and consider the possibility of a brain injury. Bleeding within the brain after a head injury is a major concern (although not all head and brain injuries cause bleeding).

Types of head injuries

Head injuries are classified as being either closed or open. Open head injuries occur when an object strikes a person’s head, penetrating the person’s skull and brain. These injuries are also sometimes called penetrating head injuries.

Closed head injuries involve a blow or jolt to the head which doesn’t penetrate but the sudden force may damage, stretch or shake brain tissue, causing harm without penetrating through the skull.

Neither type of head injury is more serious than the other; both have very significant risks and require medical assessment. A major concern with an open head injury is the risk of infection and contamination. Damage caused by a closed head injury may be less visible but swelling within an injured brain is a particular concern.

Further information

For further information on a closed head injury where there was no bleeding or bruising seen on a scan (or no scan at all), please see our sections on concussion and post-concussion syndrome.

For further information penetrating head injuries or closed head injures that resulted in bleeding or bruising seen on the scan, (or there was prolonged loss of consciousness or coma) please see our section on brain injuries.

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Brain Injuries

A brain injury is defined as an alteration in brain function caused by an external force such as a blow, collision or jolt.


Concussion may be caused by a direct blow or jolt. For example, a collision during sport or a road traffic accident.

Head Injuries

A head injury is any sort of injury to your brain, skull, or scalp. It can range in severity from a bump or bruise to a major skull fracture requiring surgery.

Post-concussion syndrome

Post-concussion syndrome is an umbrella term for a cluster of difficulties that are present three months or more after an injury.

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