In part 1 of the concussion management blog series we covered how the brain is affected following a concussion, common symptoms, why early intervention is critical, and how physiotherapy can help optimize recovery. One of the most frequent questions people have following a concussion is about recovery time – ‘when can I go back to work full time?’ or ‘when can my son/daughter play soccer again?’. It can be helpful to understand the general stages of injury and potential progression of symptoms:
The initial days following a concussion are considered the acute stage of injury, and cognitive and physical rest is critical at this time. After 7-10 days of adequate rest the chemical balance and blood flow in the brain has been restored, and symptoms that continue are known as post-concussion syndrome. Some symptoms can last upwards of 6 months or years post injury. It is important to keep in mind that not everyone will progress through all three stages, and the length of time symptoms last will vary between individuals.
Why Recovery Can Take Longer
There are a number of factors that can complicate and prolong recovery, and these can help us predict if symptoms are likely to persist longer than the usual 6 weeks. A history of migraines, mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, or learning disabilities, have been found to increase recovery times. Additionally, visual or vestibular dysfunction or a high number of initial symptoms following a concussion usually indicate prolonged recovery.
History of Concussion
People who have had a previous concussion are more susceptible to have another one due to a lower threshold for injury after each concussion – meaning the next concussion can happen from a lower severity injury than the first time. Additionally, there is often an increased number of symptoms and a longer recovery time after each subsequent concussion. A concussion at a young age risks disruption of brain circuits yet to be developed, and also creates a wider window for repeated future concussions.
Repetitive hits that are common in sports such as hockey or football, which do not cause a concussion, are known as sub concussive trauma. Research has shown this repetitive trauma can result in increased reaction and processing time, memory impairments and increased chance of making mistakes. These effects can place an athlete at an increased risk for a concussion during sport. If the athlete does sustain a concussion at this point, the brain has a diminished reserve capacity to manage injury, and the effects of subsequent concussions are cumulative and result in increased impairment in function with each concussion.
Another complicating factor is the presence of other injuries, such as whiplash or neck sprain/strains, that can occur with falls or car accidents. These neck injuries alone can cause similar symptoms to a concussion including headaches and dizziness, and in combination with a concussion can result in more severe and prolonged symptoms. Having an assessment by a physiotherapist can determine which symptoms are from the neck injury and which are from the concussion – resulting in individualized treatment strategies to target the cause of each symptom.
To conclude, although concussions can be an invisible injury, they need to be properly managed and rehabilitated just like any other injury. This management includes assessment to determine the cause of symptoms, specific treatments to address each impairment, and strategies to manage recovery at home. Visiting a physiotherapist trained in concussion rehabilitation will ensure that both concussion symptoms and neck injuries are addressed. The goals of treatment are to restore physical and cognitive function while facilitating a safe return to work and sport. Awareness and education about concussions and treatment options are important to ensure that people don’t suffer unnecessarily from prolonged symptoms – this is where a trained Physiotherapist can help!