Get back in the game: 5 tips on treating concussion

Get back in the game: 5 tips on treating concussion

Proper concussion treatment starts with recognizing that a head injury has occurred. Don't try to shake off symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating and remembering new information, headache, blurry vision, and other telltale signs of concussion. Follow doctor’s orders to heal your brain.

Seek medical attention immediately.

If the injury occurs on a field of play, the first step may involve seeing a trainer with experience and training in recognizing concussion. You’ll want to escalate care depending on severity of symptoms, such as heading to a hospital emergency room or calling 911 if you or your child loses consciousness or starts vomiting. But wherever care is provided, insist on seeing a doctor with experience diagnosing and treating concussion, including conducting so-called ImPACT, or Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, for a full evaluation and to begin treatment. “You want to have guidance from some professional who treats concussions,” says Dr. Stephen Olvey, an associate professor of clinical neurology/neurosurgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and chief medical officer for the United States Grand Prix.

Rest. Take your time.

The No. 1 treatment for concussion remains rest. For how long and to what extent varies considerably based on your symptoms. But at the least you’ll need to take a day, and likely a few, to do absolutely nothing. Really, nothing. That may extend to limiting physical and cognitive activities in some form for weeks, and in rarer cases months, before eventually resuming full function.

Related: The role of rest in treating youth concussions.

“We just want you to chill and relax and get as much rest as you can and your brain will heal itself,” says Dr. Stephen Rice, director of Jersey Shore Sports Medicine Center in Neptune, N.J. “But sometimes people can’t control themselves, and they try to live a normal life, and they’re fighting themselves, and things don’t get better.”

Pushing through symptoms like headache, which doctor say patients should never do, will only delay healing. So forget those half-watching TV, half-watching the kids, half-filling out forms for work nights for awhile. As for a child with a concussion, that may mean significant time off sports and school, or at the very least monitoring the impact of activity and homework on symptoms. “Rest isn’t just not playing football, it’s mental rest as well,” says Dr. Michael DaRosa, a sports medicine physician at highly rated Community Health Network in Indianapolis. Follow your doctor’s recommendations to the letter on all of this.

Treat symptoms.

All concussions aren’t created equal, and differences often rear their heads in a the symptoms a person faces. Many advances in concussion treatment center around providing therapies for specific symptoms that individuals may face, such as balance problems, headaches and vision issues, says Dr. Thomas Watanabe, clinical director of the brain injury center at MossRehab, based in Elkins Park, Pa. “Historically what had happened is people weren’t being seen for concussion and if they were there was no focus on identifying those symptoms.” Take advantage of advances to, with medical direction, find a treatment protocol that fits your needs.

Aim for a graduated return to activities.

Once a doctor determines symptoms have abated, it may be time to gradually resume cognitive and physical activities. If you hope to return to a sport, for example, expect to follow a protocol that begins with light exercise the first day, moderate activity the next day, practice with some limits on contact the following day, and so on until you’re ready to back down your opponent for an open shot, catch a pass or dig a volleyball. “We kind of slowly add physical and cognitive stresses to see if they can handle it. If they can’t handle it that’s a signal they need to rest more,” DaRosa says.

Sports not your thing? Roughly speaking, the same general rules advocating a gradual return — and retreat if symptoms arise, before trying to return again — apply to reentering the boardroom as well.

Seek support, or provide it.

Let’s face it. Unless you’re supremely unmotivated or your goal has always secretly been to do nothing, most find prolonged, prescribed rest a tall order to follow. Experts say kids typically recover from a concussion within a matter of weeks, but they tend to take longer to recoup than adults.

For a subset of patients that takes more than four weeks to recover, DaRosa says, most present with symptoms of anxiety and depression. “You kind of take away what they love the most and it can be tough on them,” he says of everything from sports to social outlets like school.

Related: Which high school sports have the highest incidents of concussions?

In addition to seeking appropriate mental health treatment, draw strength from family and friends and find fun in the limited activities that you or a child can participate in, and think long-term. You’ll be back in the game, or office, soon enough; and you don’t want any lingering reminders of what you’ve been through to slow you down.


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How to identify a concussion and when to seek help

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Illustration by Jake Lee
Illustration by Jake Lee

Concussion symptoms can range, so it's important to know how to identify signs a person has suffered a concussion and when to seek medical attention.

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