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July 25th, 2011
08:38 AM ET

Is it OK to fly after a head injury?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Asked by Liz from Atlanta
My teammate and I collided during a ballgame last weekend, and I blacked out for a few seconds before being taken to the emergency room. They did a CT scan of my head, which was fine. I am still having some headaches but have plans to fly across the country this weekend. Should I cancel my trip?

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. While it's widely accepted that people should avoid strenuous physical and mental activities after a concussion, it's less clear whether flying should be avoided soon afterwards.

Although jets are pressurized so that the cabin environment resembles an altitude of around 8,000 feet, some people report that flying (possibly from the changes in pressure and resulting decrease in oxygen concentration) causes symptoms such as headache, fatigue and nausea.

In addition, extreme turbulence can aggravate headaches. If you do choose to fly this weekend, your doctor may recommend taking a medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to prevent headaches during the flight.

It's also a good idea to be well-rested (or maybe sleep on the plane) and to stay hydrated during the flight.

In addition, brain rest is recommended following a concussion, so reading, watching movies and playing video games - things you might normally do to pass the time on a plane - may make things worse. It can be uncomfortable enough to be in the cramped quarters of a plane, with or without having a headache.

Keep in mind that a cross-country flight could subject you to several hours of pain. Most people with simple concussions improve within about a week or two, so if you are worried about flying and have the flexibility to change your travel plans, it may be wise to do so.

I would be interested to hear from readers about their experiences with flying after having a concussion. Please submit your comments below.

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soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Marla Heller

    I had a head injury due to a fall, and had an X-ray that only showed a broken nose. I also had minor headaches for 2 weeks after. Then the headache got severe. 2 1/2 weeks later, I was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma due to a very slow bleed, and could not have been seen right after the accident. Maybe it would be better to wait until the headaches are completely gone to preclude something else going on.

    July 25, 2011 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. rhobere

    I got a pretty severe concussion in a car wreck a few years back. I have very little memory of the couple weeks after and spotty memory for at least another month beyond that. I was experiencing frequent headaches, nausea and occasionally some dizziness. I didn't have the misfortune of flying during that time period, but whenever I was in a car for more than a few minutes, I would start getting mild motion sickness, which is something I never usually experience. Coupled with the nausea and dizziness I was already experiencing, riding in a car could be pretty miserable at times, but I never did actually get sick. I don't know if I would necessarily WANT to fly with a concussion, but I think it would be possible depending on the length of the flight and how severe the injury.

    July 25, 2011 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. kristen

    I recieved a concussion while in colorado playing a sport and had to immediatly fly home with the team a few hours after the game. Take off and Landing were extremely painful, i thought my head was going to explode. There was nothing i could do to releive the pain except wait to land. Also, i was told by doctors that the flight probably prolonged the recovery time beacuse of the extra stress put on my head for a period of about 5 hours. If your head injury was very bad i would reccomend postponing if it is possible just so you can heal properly and if your going on vacation you will probably enjoy it more because the symptoms will take time to go away. I could not read, watch tv, be in the sunlight without getting a bad head ache for atleast a week and half before the headaches slowly got better.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. JCFROMDALLAS

    My wife had a craniotomy (full open brain surgery) for an unruptured aneurysm last fall and did a 90-minute flight last week. No issues, no pain, no problems.

    July 25, 2011 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sherry meye

      Read yur post. I have had 3 craniotomies last year and plan on flying in Sept. Did your wife do anything to make the flight comfortable? Thanks Sherry

      August 8, 2011 at 16:06 | Report abuse |
  5. Pedro R. Carvalho

    Dear sirs

    Interesting text, but in the meantime, is not the concentration of oxygen which is low on board an aircraft in cruise flight, but the partial pressure of oxygen, as a consequence of low atmospheric pressure in the cabin (6000 – 8000 ft). The person's age also commonly cranial trauma victim should be taken into consideration.

    Pedro R. Carvalho M.D.

    July 26, 2011 at 08:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Pedro R. Carvalho

    Dear sirs
    (corrected text)

    Interesting text, but in the meantime, is not the concentration of oxygen which is low on board an aircraft in cruise flight, but the partial pressure of oxygen, as a consequence of low atmospheric pressure in the cabin (6000 – 8000 ft). The age of the person who suffered the trauma must also be taken into consideration.

    Pedro R. Carvalho M.D.

    July 26, 2011 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Allie

    There is no such thing as a "simple" concussion. CT will only rule out the presence of a bleed in progress. Current guidelines suggest rest for concussion. Like the MD above said, the partial pressure of O2 is lower and would be a concern I would think.
    You only get one brain, why not talk to your doctor again? The continuation of headaches would indicate that your brain is still not at 100%.

    July 26, 2011 at 08:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Marjie

    My son suffered a sever TBI 4 years ago. Coma, crainie, shunt,,since removed. His recovery has been amazing, yet ongoing. He is still young, 19 and has never flown. HIs neurosurgeon does not restrict him from flying but when I asked him straight out about it he told me that he honestly doesn't know for sure. My son has had seizures since the injury so that is also a concern..

    July 26, 2011 at 09:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mike in NYC

      Marjie – I suffered a TBI at 15 yrs old also (that was almost 20 yrs ago now). I was involved in a car accident – had a triple fracture of my skull and had an acute subdural hematoma. I too had a craniotomy, was in a coma for almost 2 months and then spent several years on Dilantin to control seizures. While every case is different – I can tell you that I do fly on a semi-regular basis and other than some discomfort on descent when the plane de-pressurizes (which can be bad depending on the flight) I've not had any "major" problems. An occasional headache if the descent was particularly bad but other than that I've not had any issues flying.

      July 26, 2011 at 09:55 | Report abuse |
    • C in AZ

      I had to have a temporal craniotomy years ago, followed by years of seizures, controlled with anticonvulsants. In those years I did not fly, based on my neuros' recommendation. (Said the skull where the drill points are is very thin.I can still feel "fingerprint depressions.) For a long time, I did not even drive.
      I have never been a fan of flying anyway. Especially since I have excruciating earpain, broken tympanums, bleeding, etc., with any drop in elevation, even without infections or headcolds.
      Why fly? When your brain is injured, it's obviously telling you NOT to do certain things.Flying and other changes in elevations are number one on MY list of no-nos.
      I try not to take chances with my tiny brain since my surgery.
      Can't afford another surgery, literally, financially, or figuratively.

      July 26, 2011 at 10:20 | Report abuse |
  9. D in Co

    I sustained a brain injury (4th) five years ago when a large tree limb recoiled upon bouncing and hit my brow just barely a over my left temple. Flying was very unpleasant until about a year ago. I would experience pain in my head, occasional nausea, and very mild disorientation. Now I fly frequently, with only rare symptoms. I believe recovery was slower for me because I am an older female with multiple injuries. Seeing a D.O. with expertise in craniosacral therapy helped me tremendously. She made a slight adjustment of my sphenoid bone and left eye, which relieved a number of symptoms.

    July 26, 2011 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sherry meyer

      Read your post. I have had 3 craniotomies due to brain bleed. What is a D.O and craniosacral theraphy? I plan to fly in Sept and very nervous. Any advice would be great....

      August 8, 2011 at 16:09 | Report abuse |
  10. PBR

    Dr;

    I have 2 questions regarding flying with a head injury.

    Scenerio: As I board an aircraft I strike the top of my head on the door. I am stunned to the point of seeing stars and I now have an open wound that is slightly bleeding.

    Questions:

    1. Is it safe for me to go ahead and take the flight after just recieving a head injury?

    2. How safe are the passengers onboard the aircraft with me having an open wound?

    October 20, 2011 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • vicky

      As a flight attendant, we would most likely not let you fly with us. There aren't any doctors on board to treat your injury, and if your injuries get worse we would have to divert the plane to get you medical attention. Most likely scenario, depending on the severity of your head wound, is we disembark you right away to get your injury checked out and you unfortunately miss your flight.

      January 16, 2014 at 13:11 | Report abuse |
  11. Jess

    I had suffered a bad concussion two weeks ago. A week into it I had to take a eight hour flight and cross an ocean. Let me also say I had brain surgery three years ago due to a tumor and also suffer from epilepsy. Long story short the flight consisted of multiple seizures and a headache beyond belief. The stewardesses had to escort me to a different area away from my seat. After arriving home I was immediately taken to he hospital where I spent two days. I recommend avoiding flights as long as possible after a concussion because it aggravates it horribly. If you can wait until you are fully healed to take a flight. I will continue to rest in bed and heal. I wish you all the best of luck and hope my lesson helps you!

    January 18, 2012 at 00:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Ronda

    I was in a car wreck hit from benind by a SUV going 50 mph.. I have a concussion, I continue to have headaches my vision is blurry and I feel sick to my stomach also when I talk my face jerks and my speech is slurred. I have to fly to Naples Fl for my work in 4 days I am going in tomorrow for a MRI I am really scared to fly.

    April 5, 2012 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Brenda

    I had a craniotomy in 2008 due to a soccer accident. It recall that it took 2-3 months to even go outside because of all the movement from the trees etc. I became instantly nauseated. My surgery was in June and in late August I went to a conference and had to leave due to the noise. It created a major headache that was debilitating. I have since flown many times and instantly become tired upon take off but then after a few minutes I am okay. I get a little nauseated and my jet lag takes a little longer to recover from now.
    I have a question....does someone who has "recovered" from a craniotomy subjected to future complications such as stroke? I had heard of complications but can not find any information on the internet as of yet.

    June 23, 2012 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. hillie

    I suffered a concussion in December 2011 and I plan to fly in January. I still have PCS symptoms that come and go, although I am getting better. Any number of things set it off. I hope that flying will not cause me to have another relapse!

    December 9, 2012 at 10:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. shimamizu

    Ok I have to comment on this "answer"

    -In addition, extreme turbulence can aggravate headaches. If you do choose to fly this weekend, your doctor may recommend taking a medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to prevent headaches during the flight.

    Do not take ibuprofen while recovering from a concussion. Doctors want you to avoid all blood thinners with a concussion. BAD IDEA. Stick to the acetaminophen for heavens sake.

    February 4, 2013 at 19:05 | Report abuse | Reply
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  19. Jean

    Ibuprofen is an antiplatelet and can increase the risk of bleeding. Acetaminophen is a safer option.
    http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/concussion/DS00320/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs

    May 30, 2013 at 20:22 | Report abuse | Reply
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  27. charlottevictoriavowden

    I flew for 12 hours from beijing to London with concussion and was horrendously ill. I was sick, had a headache, dizziness, was disorientated, drowsy and also experienced severe shaking of my muscles. I was taken to hospital as soon as the aeroplane landed and would advise anyone with concussion not to fly. I was only diagnosed after the flight but I had been hit in the head less than 12 hours before I flew and didn't recognise the symptoms until it was too late, believing it to be a migraine.

    November 4, 2013 at 11:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Sascha

    I had a motocross crash two weeks ago and I was unconscious for a few hours, been to doctors had it all checked out but I was wondering if it's okay to fly anytime soon?

    November 10, 2013 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
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  30. Serkan k

    Do not fly with concussion it will leave you miserable the next two days.

    March 11, 2014 at 21:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Daniel Jimenez

    Dr. I was in a IED explosion and among many other issues have MTBI is it ideal for me to be able to fly?

    August 4, 2014 at 04:46 | Report abuse | Reply

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