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Recovering from a Concussion: What To Expect

A concussion is no easy thing to deal with. This is an injury to your brain, one of your body’s most important organs.

Most people heal from a concussion and become symptom free within a few weeks. But this isn’t like a broken bone, where you doctor can offer a fairly concrete timetable for when you can return to action. Brains heal differently than bones. And every person’s concussion journey may be different.

Your path to recovery can be impacted by numerous factors. And there may be delays before you can get back to full participation in work, school, athletics and social activities.

What Is a Concussion?

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that affects your brain’s ability to function normally. Concussions can happen in any number of ways. You could fall and strike your head on the floor. You could run into someone else while playing soccer. Or you could bang your head during a car collision.

But you can also get a concussion if your body experiences a rapid acceleration and deceleration. This could occur during a traffic accident – with your head whipping back and forth – even if your head doesn’t hit anything.

A concussion isn’t likely to cause structural damage to your brain. Instead, it causes temporary microstructural and chemical changes that should fade as your brain heals over time. Symptoms vary from person to person. They include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion, mental fogginess or difficulty concentrating
  • Temporary loss of consciousness
  • Dizziness
  • Vision problems (including double vision)
  • Difficulty sleeping or staying awake
  • Light and noise sensitivity
  • Unexplained tiredness
  • Unexpected mood changes (including depression, irritability and anxiousness)

Challenges To Concussion Recovery

To protect your brain, it is important that you avoid contact sports until fully healed. This is one of the reasons why sports organizations use extensive “return-to-play” protocols designed to protect athletes.

Since no one can put a specific timetable on your recovery, treatment revolves around monitoring symptoms and how your body responds when you gradually ramp up activities. Your recovery may also be affected by a range of factors, including a history of migraines, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These do not mean that you will not heal from a concussion, it just may take longer and require a targeted treatment plan from your doctor and physical therapist to speed recovery.

Concussion Recovery Strategies

Long gone are the days when doctors sent concussion patients for a lengthy rest in darkened rooms. After a day or two of rest, it is important to resume your normal routine and gradually return to work, school and non-contact aerobic exercise. Research has shown that this helps reduce anxiety over missed assignments/work and with symptom management.

Sleep hygiene is key in concussion recovery. Though it will be tempting to take naps throughout the day, you should try to avoid them and instead get on a regular sleep schedule where you are sleeping 8 hours a night. Part of your sleep routine should involve avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and blue light an hour before bed. 

Your diet matters, too. Focus on nutritious meals that are healthy for your brain, including foods (fish and walnuts, for example) rich in omega-3 fatty acids.  Stay hydrated, with an emphasis on drinks that replenish electrolytes.

And as soon as your body can tolerate it, you should also return to exercise. Aim for moderate-intensity aerobic exercises for at least 20 minutes a day. You may also benefit from working with a physical therapist, who can help evaluate your symptoms and provide exercises that can speed your healing.

As you ease back into your regular life, you may also need to seek accommodations, either at work or school. Those could include:

  • Start out with a half-day at school or work. You’ll get the benefit of the structured day, without overtaxing your brain.
  • Take a break if you feel your symptoms worsening. Even stepping out of the classroom or office for a couple minutes to close your eyes and pause can be helpful.
  • Ask for extra time on assignments. You may need an extended deadline to avoid stressing your brain.
  • If you have a physical job, you may need lighter duty until your symptoms are under control.
  • If you work in a bright and busy office that triggers your symptoms, start working from home and gradually return to your normal working environment.

As you recover, it is normal to initially experience some symptoms with increased physical and cognitive activity. Keep in mind the 3 point rule. If any activity increases your baseline symptoms above three points on a 10-point scale, take a brief break from the activity until it calms down to the baseline, add a minute and reattempt the activity. This graded approach will help your brain adapt to the activity over time.

If you or your loved one experiences a concussion, quickly seek medical attention from a provider experienced in concussion care.

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