Is Flying After a Brain Injury Dangerous?

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They say every concussion is different, but there is one thing in common between them all: the suggested treatment mainly consists of sitting and relaxing in a dim or dark room. But, realistically we all have lives and can’t actually sit in a dark room 24 hours a day. It’s widely accepted that you should avoid strenuous activity, but what does that really mean?

A girl, identified as “Liz from Atlanta”, who recently suffered a minor brain injury from a sports-related concussion, recently asked Dr. Jennifer Shu, CNNHealth expert, about flying following a concussion. Specifically, Liz wanted to know if flying not long after her concussion was safe.

To some, flying cross-country is no worse than taking a long road trip in the passenger seat, but others report headaches, fatigue, and nausea from flying, possibly from decreased oxygen levels and changes in pressure. On top of that, Shu points out that extreme turbulence can make headaches worse, though some acetaminophen could possibly head relieve that issue.

Other things you can do to prevent any complications when flying post-concussion are making sure to be well rested before boarding a plane (or sleeping during the flight) and to stay well hydrated. Normal relaxation or distractions such as reading or watching movies can make symptoms worse, so it is important to be aware of the risk and plan ahead to possibly bring earplugs or something else to help you avoid loud noise.

It doesn’t seem that flying after a minor brain injury like Liz’s is all that dangerous, seeing as her CT scan came out clear, and the only symptoms she is reporting are light headaches, but for others with more numerous or severe symptoms that may not be the case and it is best to consult your personal physician before deciding to make your trip.

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15 Responses to Is Flying After a Brain Injury Dangerous?

  1. ak May 12, 2016 at 9:49 pm #

    How soon is it suggested to wait to fly for someone who has sustained a class three (unconscious for > 1 minute…this middle-aged athletic person was unconscious for ~25-30 minutes) concussion?

  2. ... May 12, 2016 at 9:49 pm #

    How soon is it suggested to wait to fly for someone who has sustained a class three (unconscious for > 1 minute…this middle-aged athletic person was unconscious for ~25-30 minutes) concussion?

  3. Suzanne October 12, 2016 at 4:04 pm #

    This does not address a common side effect of TBI–can’t process a lot of stimuli and all the noise, lights, numerous people, announcements, orders, movement etc can be extremely overwhelming resulting in a melt-down for people who have permanent post TBI problems. I flew 150K miles a year pre-TBI without a thought or problem, never since.

    • Zack January 23, 2017 at 9:41 am #

      Maybe if you have someone next to you at all times, it might make it better enough so you can? I can’t stop thinking of ways to try to help people since mine. I hope I didnt make you angry, that would’ve been a problem with me 5 years ago.

  4. Suzanne November 28, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

    Hi All,

    I received a bang to the head in October (less than 2 months ago).

    I did not have any side affects, that was until I flew from Australia to Ireland earlier this month. The doctor in Ireland thought I had mild vertigo but I got a second opinion and it was concluded I have side affects from a concussion, ruling vertigo out. These being nausea, dizziness, feeling ‘not right’, sleepy/groggy, lack of appetite, slightly down in myself. I also got physically sick/almost sick on two separate occasions overdoing things as I was not minding myself when I didn’t know what exactly was wrong with me.

    I feel even worse when I drink alcohol, which means I obviously am not drinking at all until I’m better! I’m booked in to get a CT scan of my head this week.

    In the mean time, has anyway experienced these symptoms particularly after a flight? I am suspicious it may have something to do with the lack of oxygen/change in pressure that has set something off, if that makes sense?

    • LC January 14, 2017 at 6:31 pm #

      I had a concussion while skiing and I hit the back of my head hard. I did not pass out and cleared ski patrol’s “tests.” I skied lightly the next day, then flew home the following day. The 3rd day I ended up at the ER with a severe migraine and enormous head pressure. High, high pain level. CT Scan was clear and they determined a concussion. I then had 9 days of severe head pressure, migraines and face pressure,dizzy, couldn’t focus to read, write or look at phone etc. I took it very easy and slept in a dark room/did little during those 9 days. Very tired and ill. 13 day out I am now dealing with ringing ears, ears popping, pressure/tension in head (esp when stimulated such as screens, doing two things at once), foggy, migraines triggered by light etc. I did 2 CT scans, both clear. Talk to a sports med doc and symptoms continue go to a Physical Therapist that specializes in concussions. That is my next plan after speaking to a PT concussion specialist. There is a thing called Vestibular and other therapies when you suffer from these symptoms after a concussion. I have found internist/reg docs don’t seem to have a lot of support/info. I have learned that it seems to be very hard to measure a concussion and everyone’s symptoms are different and come on at different times. There is so little information out there, but resting after a concussion for up to 3 weeks is ideal removing as much stimuli as possible. Had I not skied and flown following my head blow, I don’t think I would be dealing with such severe symptoms as I am now. In my personal option, give yourself a month and lay low before flying.

      • Jay February 21, 2017 at 2:54 pm #

        LC. I read your note and it’s so similar to me….except I’m now at 6 months and have Post Concussion Syndrome. Rear ended by a dump truck on the freeway. No lost consciousness. Physiotherapy helped for the first 3 months and then it wasn’t helpful. I also was dealing with a concussion physiotherapist. I’m now doing private yoga sessions 2x per week, rehabilitative massage 1x per week, chiropractor 2x per week – and walks which is really helping. I’m going on my first plane ride and am nervous. Still have the head pressure, ringing in my ears, sentitivity to light, motion, screens etc., All that you have. So agree that there’s so little info out there and concussions are not well understood. Be your own advocate and don’t give up. I also have whiplash. Hoping to get back to work soon. I miss it. Hope you get better.
        .

    • Zack January 23, 2017 at 9:42 am #

      I hope everything is getting better 🙂

  5. Lin March 30, 2017 at 8:51 pm #

    My daughter suffered her 3rd concussion in January. We were on vacation and we had to fly to get home. We know the concussion protocol, and she was getting better with rest, school modifications and weekly vestibular ocular therapy. Last week we took another flight and she’s had a major relapse. Not sure if it was the altitude or cabin pressure…but I feel like we just un-did 4 months of decent recovery. It totally stinks. We’re supposed to take another flight next week, but I think we might cancel.

    • admin March 31, 2017 at 9:43 am #

      Lin, you definitely want to get a physician’s opinion before attempting another flight!

  6. Jackson May 29, 2017 at 8:18 pm #

    Between the ages 3-6 I had 5 concussions and I’m now 14 wanting to be a pilot and I am wondering​ if the FFA will let me fly a plane please someone help me

  7. Sanah June 16, 2017 at 10:15 pm #

    Hey guys, I flew from New York to Europe 4 weeks after I hit my head badly… I got these things called ‘earplanes’ which you can get from a drug store…. they really helped with the pressure… Hope this helps some folks.

  8. Liz August 2, 2017 at 10:54 pm #

    Less than a week ago I learned that one of my dearest friends was taken off life support and he died and hour after I learned that. The family kept things quiet and I learned that he had been lingering in a coma for several weeks. he was at a work conference in Seattle and fell, hitting his head. He brushed himself off and went to bed. The next morning he flew home to Chicago , and took an Uber immediately to the ER . Doctors put him in a coma to relieve the pressure in his brain . He was never able to come out of it without seizuring. Nothing about my friend suggested he was in a compromised health. He likely did have some cocktails that night , but no underlying health conditions . I wonder if he would still be alive if he had left Seattle later. Would his discomfort have arrived regardless of the plane ride, could he have gotten himself help sooner?

  9. Shirley August 26, 2017 at 6:50 am #

    Hi all,

    I had a concussion 13 months ago, not unconscious, but dizzy, tired, could not easily read, watch TV. CT scan clear. PT for two months. After about two months, felt almost normal, though every once in awhile I had a slight balance issue. Over 50 years old.

    Fast forward, I flew almost every other week for 2.5 months, including overseas flights of greater than 7 hours in the air each day, and twice totally awake for about 24 straight hours.

    Loss of balance came back, even worse than at the time of concussion and fatigue. Docs thought I had an inner ear issue, initially, but neurologist confirmed it was post concussion impact of flying, stress and lack of sleep.

    A bit surprised, given my concussion was 13 MONTHS AGO. Did anyone have something similar happen to them, and did you stop flying (which I have done), etc. THANKS!

  10. Tonya August 31, 2017 at 2:50 pm #

    Shirley, I am almost 4 years post-concussion and continue to suffer from Post Concussion Syndrome, and I can assure you that flying absolutely knocks the crap out of me. I don’t necessarily think it is just the air pressure, etc, but – as someone said previously in this thread – it seems to be all the stimuli associated with air travel: airports, schedules, crowds of people, lights, sounds, chaos, lack of sleep, jet lag, keeping track of tickets and luggage and departure gates, orders coming from impatient border patrol and customs agents. It’s all very stressful for perfectly healthy brains, let alone compromised ones. If you think about how discombobulated many sufferers of Post Concussion Syndrome feel in grocery stores and shopping malls (bright lights, music, crowds of people, millions of products on the shelves from which to choose), it’s not surprising that airports and air travel trigger relapses and/or very high stress, which is anathema to damaged brains.

    I travel a lot (for pleasure, no less: a nice problem to have, I know) but it is a constant source of stress and worry, and almost always results in me being what I call ‘brainsick’ for weeks after returning home. It’s gotten so it’s almost not worth it. If it were just me, I would not travel long distances by plane – at least not until I’ve fully recovered. However, I continue to do it for my husband, as I feel my illness shouldn’t interfere with his ability to travel and have fun. I pay an ENORMOUS price for it, though.

    I wish I could tell you it gets better, and for many it does. For me, 4 years post-concussion, I seem to be in a holding pattern with my PCS. I sincerely hope this won’t be the case for you.:)

    My advice: don’t fly if you don’t feel up to it. I wish I could take my own advice.:/

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