Once upon a time, doctors recommended strict rest in a quiet room for a week after a concussion.
Now, we know more, and we know better. New research shows returning to gentle exercise sooner after a concussion can actually help folks recover faster.
The key is to do this under the care of a concussion specialist, because the brain does need some rest after a concussion. A specialist will have the measurements and knowledge and experience to help you do it safely.
The good news is the brain knows how to heal from a concussion, generally speaking. But sometimes it gets overwhelmed or stuck, resulting in dizziness, vision problems, headaches, and imbalance, especially with movement or in visually rich environments.
That’s where a vestibular therapist can help. I guide my clients through gentle cardio and strength training in a graded approach, being mindful of any neck or back pain they may have suffered from the concussion as well as dizziness or balance issues. It’s important for me to take a big-picture look at the whole person because sometimes we also have to address the spine and the vestibular system to help the client recover fully.
I first became interested in helping people recover from concussions after my sister experienced multiple concussions within a two-year time period.
My sister, Amanda, was a very intense goalkeeper for our small high school varsity and travel team. The first concussion she had was when she made a dive to save a goal, and a girl on the opposing team went for the ball but missed and kicked my sister in the face instead.
Amanda lost consciousness for a few minutes and was taken to the emergency room.
Fast forward and she was off playing in the next game a few days later, still with symptoms of headache and light sensitivity. She was told by the ER doctor, “Give it 24 hours and just rest.”
Save after save, another impact, another girl trampling into her, and a hit to a goal post...we can count that within a two-year span, she had at least six concussions.
During this time, she experienced extreme fatigue (sleeping constantly), brain fog, and migraine, and her school work suffered.
She was told by the neurologist “sounds like post-concussion, but there is nothing that you can do but rest.” And that was that.
No plan. No education. No return to activity program. Just “rest.” The traditional medical system failed Amanda.
And it is my goal that this does not happen to you or anyone else.
Helping the brain heal from a concussion
Fun fact: Exercise encourages the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a neurotransmitter that helps the brain heal faster. That means faster recovery from any associated dizziness, lightheadedness, imbalance, migraines, and difficulties with thinking, remembering, and processing information.
However, you shouldn’t rush back to work, school work, the soccer field or the basketball court right away after a concussion. Returning to your prior level of exertion too soon can set you back and make you feel miserable. Instead, I help clients figure out what they can tolerate well right now, and then we make a plan to gradually increase the challenge using heart rate and symptoms as our guides. Concussions also can affect blood pressure regulation, so I keep an eye on this as well.
What might a concussion-recovery exercise plan look like?
Each plan will be as unique as the individual and their needs, but it might include:
Yoga minus any inversions
Body weight exercises
By monitoring the body’s response to the exercise, we can see how well it’s responding and adjust as needed – whether that be taking more rest breaks if we need to dial back the intensity or adding weights/resistance to make it more challenging.
In addition to a concussion-recovery exercise plan, I work with clients on other wellness factors that support their healing.
Sleep is often affected by concussions, and it is also super important to get good sleep to recover well, so we will work on getting back in a routine.
Stress management is always important, but it’s critical when recovering from a concussion. I help clients find ways to reduce their stress, such as mindfulness practices or breathing exercises.
Screens may be more bothersome after a concussion. Check out this post on tips to improve this issue.
Nutrition is always an important topic of conversation when managing any vestibular disorder. Our output can only be as good as what we input into our bodies through the fuel of our food.
If you’ve suffered a concussion, it’s important to see a vestibular and concussion specialist sooner rather than later to improve your dizziness, headaches, lightheadedness, and visual difficulties. Because each concussion patient is different, I take care to assess the root causes of your symptoms and create a customized treatment plan that integrates all components of your neurologic system. I will also connect you with any other specialists that can help speed your recovery, including neurologists, neuro-optometrists, neuropsychologists, and occupational and/or speech therapists.
Want to learn more? Check out my concussion e-book here.