A concussion, also known as a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), can raise a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This, in turn, may raise the risk of a heart attack.

However, there are currently no scientific studies showing that concussions directly cause heart attacks. In the majority of cases, people with concussions recover without serious or lasting symptoms.

In this article, we will look at how concussions may lead to a heart attack, other ways a concussion may affect the heart, and the red flags to look out for.

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A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, happens when the heart is not receiving enough blood flow. There is no research showing that concussions can directly cause heart attacks, but they may raise the risk of other conditions that can ultimately lead to this complication.

For example, a 2023 cohort study in Taiwan found that individuals who sustain any type of TBI have a slightly higher risk of developing chronic cardiovascular disease (CVD) and heart failure. People with these conditions can have heart attacks.

The authors describe the effect of TBIs on CVD and heart failure risk as “modest but significant.” However, the study had some limitations. For example, the researchers did not have access to information on:

  • whether the participants smoked
  • their physical activity level
  • their blood pressure
  • their body weight

All of these are important risk factors for CVD. The authors also did not know the severity of the TBIs, so it is unclear if mild TBIs, such as concussions, have the same effect as more severe TBIs.

Another study in Taiwan found that the risk of heart dysfunction increased in the year following a TBI in comparison to a control group. This was true regardless of the severity of the TBI.

Further research is necessary to gain a better understanding of the links between brain injuries and cardiovascular health.

Scientists do not entirely understand how or why concussion or TBI affects the cardiovascular system. However, some believe it could be due to the surge in catecholamines and inflammatory compounds after the injury.

Catecholamines are brain chemicals, including epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. The body makes more of them during the stress response, and they may affect heart activity.

A typical adult heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm) while resting. However, an individual’s heart rate can change every minute, and what’s typical differs for everyone due to age and health.

Following a concussion, individuals can experience changes in heart rate. Some have tachycardia, or a high heart rate. This may be due to the stress of the injury.

For some, though, it is the result of paroxysmal sympathetic hyperactivity (PSH), which causes an increase in heart rate along with a higher body temperature, rapid breathing, sweating, and other symptoms.

Others may experience a decrease in heart rate, or bradycardia.

These changes may resolve as the individual recovers from the concussion.

It is possible that concussions or mild TBIs may affect the cardiovascular system in other ways, too.

Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) is when the heart rate increases very quickly after changing positions. This can cause:

  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • chest pain
  • heart palpitations
  • fainting

A 2022 review of 268 people with concussion found that 7% experienced POTS-like increases in heart rate after their injury.

However, the researchers note that POTS is generally more common in children and females, whereas in their results, the symptoms affected people of all ages and sexes equally. This led the researchers to suggest that POTS and postconcussive orthostatic tachycardia may be two different things.

Recognizing the red flags of concussion is crucial for prompt diagnosis and treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), signs of a serious concussion may include:

  • one pupil being larger than the other
  • a headache that gets progressively worse
  • loss of consciousness, even if only for a moment
  • confusion or agitation
  • convulsions or seizure
  • slurred speech, lack of coordination, and numbness or weakness
  • repeated vomiting

If an individual experiences any of these symptoms following a head injury, seek medical attention immediately.

Up to 90% of adults who sustain a concussion recover within 10 to 14 days. The outlook for a person’s heart health is less clear.

This is still an ongoing area of research, so there is currently no firm data on whether treatment for a concussion will also prevent the injury from affecting the heart.

With appropriate treatment and rest, though, concussion symptoms usually improve within a few days or weeks.

Some individuals may experience persistent symptoms, known as postconcussive syndrome, which may require specialized treatment.

Concussions may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart failure, or heart dysfunction. This, in turn, may increase the risk of heart attacks if a person develops these complications. However, there are no studies directly linking concussions to heart attacks at present.

Seeking prompt medical attention for a concussion is essential for proper diagnosis and treatment. With appropriate care and management, the outlook for both the concussion is often positive.