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Concussion awareness is on the rise, and concussion management is evolving thanks to a better understanding of the condition from the medical community and the public. For decades, rest has been the go-to recommendation following a concussion. But in recent years, experts have come to understand that a more active approach to treating concussion can mean faster recovery, and physical therapy plays a big role in that approach. Here’s a short 101 on concussion management and the latest developments in treatment:
What Is a Concussion?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that can result from a bump, blow or jolt to the head. It involves a brief change in mental status or consciousness. Concussions have been in the news lately as the impact of damage to the brain from football and other contact sports makes its way into the spotlight. The new attention is well-deserved since there are an estimated 1.6 to 3.8 million sports-related concussions each year according to a 2006 study.
What Are the Symptoms of Concussion?
Some of the most common symptoms of concussion include dizziness, neck pain, headaches, issues with balance and sensitivity to light or sound. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, concussion can also manifest in a range of cognitive symptoms including difficulty with short-term memory, confusion, fogginess, difficulty concentrating and trouble with school work.
What Are Common Causes of Concussion?
While football injuries have made headlines in recent years, the causes of concussion go way beyond the sports arena. According to APTA, concussions are often seen in seniors, athletes of all ages and military personnel, but they can happen to anyone since the causes range so widely–from a fall at home to a playground accident. Some common causes on the APTA list include:
- Sports injuries (including contact and non-contact sports)
- Slip and fall injuries in seniors
- Vehicle accidents
- Violent events ranging from battlefield injuries to domestic abuse
- Playground accidents
- Workplace injury
What Should I Do If I Have (Or Suspect) a Concussion?
If you suspect you have a concussion, the most important thing is to get seen by a healthcare provider right away. Most sports leagues have protocols in place that require athletes with certain symptoms to be seen before returning to the field. Diagnosing a concussion can be tricky since it doesn’t usually show up on traditional scans like CAT or MRI. Instead, your doctor or physical therapist will ask a series of questions and administer some tests. If a concussion is diagnosed, you’ll begin your concussion care journey with a team including doctors, physical therapists and family members.
According to APTA, managing a concussion involves a continuum of care that including prevention, detection, rehabilitation and an eventual return to activity. Physical therapists play an important role in all of these steps, and especially in the areas of rehabilitation and return to activity.
How Can Physical Therapy Help Treat a Concussion?
For years, complete rest was considered the best approach by the medical establishment. But studies are beginning to show that a more active approach, with a focus on physical therapy, is proving to be more effective than rest. A 2014 study showed that physical therapy targeting the neck and vestibular system (the system that includes the inner ear and its connections to the brain) actually shortened the time it took patients to recover from a concussion. Taking an active approach to helping patients recover is now standard in most cases. Physical therapy can help by directly treating symptoms including dizziness, headaches and balance issues, by helping patients stay physically active within the restrictions of their recovery plan using targeted exercise, and by helping patients develop a plan for safely returning to the activities they love and avoiding re-injury.
What Should I Expect in a Physical Therapy Session for Concussion?
The specific plan developed for concussion management is done on a case by case basis based on symptoms. Some of the most effective therapies include:
- Vestibular therapy: if ongoing dizziness is an issue, a form of physical therapy known as vestibular therapy can help. This involves using special treatments and exercises to target dizziness and balance issues through the inner ear.
- Balance exercises: in addition to vestibular therapy, balance exercises can include both eye/gaze exercises and standard range of motion exercises involving the feet and legs.
- Neck exercises: concussions often happen in tandem with neck injuries so neck therapy including exercises, PT massage and electrical stimulation can help. A focus on posture control and head positioning can also help manage pain and dizziness.
- Headache therapy: Physical therapy has been shown to help reduce headaches using a range of exercises and specialized massage. According to APTA, electrical stimulation can also help with headaches in certain cases.
Concussion Management at Countryside Orthopaedics
At Countryside Orthopaedics, our goal is to get you back to the activities you love, whether the issue is an injury to your hand or your head. Our team of physical therapists receives special training in the latest techniques for managing concussions and is ready to help you recover and move safely back to sports, work, school and family life.