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Symptom Areas

Cognitive Function (Thinking Skills)

Updated Jul 31, 2019

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Cognitive Function and Concussion

Cognitive functions are thinking skills like concentration, memory, mental speed, planning, and problem-solving. Cognitive changes are common after a concussion due to temporary changes in brain function. For most people, these symptoms get better in a few days or weeks.

Cognitive symptoms can be greater or last longer if you also have a condition like ADHD, a learning disability, sleep problems, pain, or mental health issues.

Cognitive function thinking

Factors Influencing Cognitive Function

Many factors affect cognition after concussion. Research shows these factors can impact cognitive function even more than the concussion itself! By managing them, cognitive function generally improves. Since many of these factors are connected, a positive change in one area can have an effect in other areas, resulting in a big impact on cognitive function.

In the diagram to the right, click on each factor to see how it impacts cognitive function.

Cognitive Strategies

Ottawa Hospital created this short and helpful video about managing cognitive changes after concussion. Here are some general strategies

  1. Use pacing to make the best use of your energy across the day and week (see the article Pacing).
  2. Avoid drugs and alcohol.
  3. Make sure you are managing stress (see the article Stress Management).
  4. Address changes in mood and sleep.
  5. Incorporate exercise into your routine.
  6. Remind yourself it is normal to have cognitive slips sometimes.

More Cognitive Strategies

Here are some more tips for managing cognitive difficulties:

  1. Break difficult tasks into smaller steps and write them down.
  2. Use a calendar or day planner to keep track of appointments.
  3. Set reminders on your phone.
  4. Keep your environment tidy.
  5. Keep important things like your wallet and keys in the same place.
  6. If you are stuck for a word, try thinking of a similar word, or describing the word.
  7. Reduce distractions when you are trying to concentrate (e.g. turn off the radio, go to a quiet corner).
  8. Focus on one task at a time.
  9. Choose a time when you are most alert to take on challenging mental tasks.
  10. Ask someone for help if you need it.

When to Get More Help

Talk to your family doctor if your cognitive function is not improving. They can discuss symptom management with you or make a referral if needed. Some people benefit from working with a Psychologist, Occupational Therapist, or Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) to learn strategies for managing cognitive symptoms.

Patient with doctor

Neuropsychological Assessment

Some people are referred for neuropsychological assessment, conducted by a Psychologist specialized in brain function and behaviour. They measure thinking skills in-depth and ask about factors that may affect thinking. The result is information about cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and recommendations for treatment and return-to-work or school.

Taking Action!

If cognitive function is something that you want to take action on, here are some ideas:

  1. Make an action plan to incorporate one of the specific strategies above (e.g. buy a day planner, set a reminder in your phone for taking medication).
  2. Take a big task or project you’ve been working on and break it down into steps. Write these steps down in sequence. Check off each step as you complete it.
  3. Make an appointment to talk to your family doctor about your concerns.
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