What You Need To Know About Accidental Head Injury

"Full House" actor Bob Saget tragically died from head trauma. Here are the signs to look out for.
Rodin Eckenroth via Getty Images

Bob Saget’s family has revealed the cause of his death one month ago. The “Full House” actor died from an accidental head injury, TMZ was the first to report.

In a statement to E! News, his family said authorities concluded that Saget “accidentally hit the back of his head on something, thought nothing of it and went to sleep.” The actor and comedian was 65.

The prospect of a seemingly benign head injury ultimately leading to death is likely to be unsettling to many people. So here’s what you need to know about head injuries, and when to seek help.

Head injuries are really common

Head injuries happen frequently. As the National Institutes of Health points out, chances are pretty darn good you’ve hit your head before, and the severity of head injuries really runs the gamut. You might have a mild bump or bruise, but otherwise be fine. The skull provides strong protection, and mild head injuries can often be treated with rest and over-the-counter pain relief.

Other injuries fall into the broad category of “traumatic brain injury” or TBI, which also exist on a spectrum from mild to severe. That includes everything from concussion to skull fracture to hematoma.

Look out for headache, vomiting, confusion and more

There are many signs of a moderate-to-severe head injury. It’s important to know what they are and to seek help right away if you’re experiencing any.

  • A headache that gets worse (or won’t go away)

  • Repeated vomiting or nausea

  • Convulsions or seizures

  • An inability to wake up

  • Dilated pupils in one or both eyes

  • Slurred speech

  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs

  • Loss of coordination

  • Increased confusion, restlessness or agitation

You might also lose consciousness briefly, or feel really drowsy.

If you have any concerns at all, talk to a doctor ASAP

Because head injuries can be deadly, it is important to seek medical care immediately if you have any of the above symptoms, or if you’re just feeling unsure about the severity of your injury. Health experts say that with this type of injury, it is a good idea to err on the side of caution.

“The terms ‘mild,’ ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ are used to describe the effect of the injury on brain function,” the Mayo Clinic explains. “A mild injury to the brain is still a serious injury that requires prompt attention and an accurate diagnosis.”

Even a person with a “mild” injury might need to be closely monitored at home.

But people with brain injuries don’t necessarily need to be kept awake

There is a long-standing myth that people with a diagnosed concussion should not be allowed to sleep, for fear they could slip into a coma. But experts have pretty much debunked that.

“If the person who is injured is awake and holding a conversation, you can let him or her fall asleep as long as they are not developing any other symptoms such as dilated pupils or issues with walking. Usually after a concussion, a person may be dazed or may vomit,” Dr. Alice Alexander, a primary care doctor in the Internal Medicine Clinic at UAMS Health, said in a blog post. “For children, we advise parents to wake up the child a couple times during the night to make sure they are able to be aroused.”

That said, it is critical that your brain injury be assessed in the first place — particularly because drowsiness can be a red flag. So if you have an accident that causes any shifts in your behavior or that concerns you in any way, get it addressed by a doctor before going to sleep or pushing it off.

Certain groups have a higher risk of TBI

There were more than 223,000 TBI-related hospitalizations in 2018, as well more than 60,611 TBI-related deaths in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And certain groups have higher risk.

“People age 75 years and older had the highest numbers and rates of TBI-related hospitalizations and deaths,” the CDC states. “This age group accounts for about 32% of TBI-related hospitalizations and 28% of TBI-related deaths.”

That’s likely because unintentional falls account for nearly 50% of all TBI-related hospitalizations, per the CDC, followed by car crashes, which account for nearly a quarter.

There are also gender-based differences in who is at risk for serious outcomes. Males are nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized and three times more likely to die from a traumatic brain injury than females, according to the CDC. That’s likely because men have higher rates of the types of accidents that contribute to head injuries: They’re more likely to have unintentional falls, be in car accidents, and be unintentionally struck by an object, for example.

Bottom line: Check in with a physician if you’re ever concerned, even if you think you’re being paranoid

A head injury isn’t something you should panic about under most circumstances, but it can turn into a severe problem in rare cases. So don’t worry that you’re overreacting if you get it checked out.

“Head injuries can be serious, even though on the outside there may not be much visible evidence of an injury,” Dr. Charles Emerman, chair of the emergency department at MetroHealth, said in a post on that hospital’s website. “And symptoms of a serious injury may not appear immediately.”

When in doubt, go to the emergency room, Emerman said.

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