Physical Therapy & Concussions

With high school sports in full force and the NFL season upon us, concussions are certain to ramp up within the mainstream consciousness. And while talk will often point to conventional wisdom which states that “time and rest” are the best and only options for recovery from concussion, Seattle-area physical therapist Douglas Free says that studies now suggest managed exercise and movement can hasten recovery.

“Until recently the prescription for those that suffer a concussion was strict rest. They were instructed not to exercise until symptoms improved,” said Douglas Free, DPT of RET Physical Therapy Group. “Of course immediate removal from sport remains critical, but after that what is best? We now know that strict rest after a concussion is not the best way to go. There is evidence to suggest that, while initially rest remains important, a program of careful, managed exercise can benefit recovery.”

Researchers at the University of Buffalo have now conducted several studies that show that that specialized exercise regimens can be effective in relieving prolonged concussion symptoms.

Their initial study in 2010 focused on both athletes and non-athletes and was published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers based their findings on the hypothesis that “the regulatory system responsible for maintaining cerebral blood flow, which may be dysfunctional in people with a concussion, can be restored to normal by controlled, graded, symptom-free exercise.”

Nearly 3.8 million people suffer from concussions each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many the result of athletic injuries and motor vehicle accidents. From 5 to 10 percent of these people may experience concussion symptoms that last beyond six weeks.

“As health care professionals, physical therapists are in an ideal position to provide one-on-one care for concussion sufferers, from evaluation through treatment,” said Dr. Free. “Concussions are serious medical conditions that can hold you back for days … even weeks. A physical therapist can guide a patient through the healing process, making recovery more proactive and possibly even quicker. Individualized care is key to developing an individualized treatment plan that addresses an individual’s needs and goals.”

Following an initial period of rest, a physical therapist can determine when it’s best to begin treating the problems related to the concussion (e.g., dizziness, balance and headaches) with a program of light, guided exercise, while at the same time monitoring for symptoms.
“A physical therapist will be with you every step of the way as you gradually return to normal life and activities, including return to work, hobbies or competitive sports,” said Dr. Free. “This is a guided process that’s different for each concussion sufferer.”

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