How to recover from a concussion in 12 steps

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Yesterday, this headline from CBC News in Calgary caught my attention: “Sports-related brain injuries among children on the rise.” The article covers a report released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information about a large increase over the past 5 years in ER visits for concussions. (Visit the link above to view the interactive infographic displaying the number of ER visits per sport per year.)

I’ve disliked football for years now. It is hard for me to watch because the tackling feels so violent. With the research spotlight turned on to sports-related concussions, now we know that it in fact is too violent, causing professional players to suffer from long-term brain damage like chronic traumatic encephalopathy and early dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Heartbreaking.

Having had a non-sports-related concussion, which my doctor said typically takes longer to recover from than a sports-related concussion (my symptoms still continue after 17 months, albeit somewhat diminished), I can guarantee none of my kids will be allowed to play football.

The article highlighted an interview with a boy who sustained a concussion as a twelve-year-old. After a single hit in a hockey game, he developed a headache and dizziness and has not played hockey since. He is 19 and still has headaches. The list of medical professionals he used is eye-opening for the un-concussion-initiated: “‘I was seeing a sport medicine doctor, a family doctor, a physiotherapist, a pyschologist, a psychiatrist, a neurologist and an osteopath.'”

I came up with my own list: (aside from the two ER doctors I saw initially) primary care doctors, physical medicine doctor specializing in neurology, a couple of other specialists, counselors, psychiatrists, an optometrist, a speech therapist, an occupational and vision therapist, a physical therapist, and four alternative health practitioners. Phew!

This is the kind of injury that profoundly impacts your life, even with proper access to resources. I can’t even imagine what I would have done without all this help, without my parents’ financial assistance, and without the ability to quit my job and take all the time I have needed to recuperate.

I came up with a list of 12 items to help with mild traumatic brain injury/concussion recovery. They are not comprehensive, nor do they constitute medical advice. I simply want to provide a little extra support for anyone who might be going through this experience. If you’re struggling to find help for your symptoms, you’re not alone. You need extra support and it’s worth fighting to find it.

  1. Get a proper diagnosis and be under care of a physician. If their prognosis doesn’t pan out, keep seeking treatment. The first doctor I saw said to take a few days off work and that I’d be okay in a few weeks. WRONG! After a few weeks I was absolutely not doing better and my search for proper treatment and healing began.
  2. Don’t be afraid to take things SLOW. Your body will rebel if you don’t. I understood early on that if my symptoms (headaches, emotionality) were getting worse I needed to slow down and not push. For me, this meant quitting my job, not going to law school as I had hoped, and basically taking a 1.5-year sabbatical. These tough choices were necessary for me to be able to recover, and I am so grateful I made them. Take frequent breaks throughout the day to give your brain time to recover some of the energy it has used. Fatigue is challenging to manage. It will take longer to do things and you will get tired more easily. If you are unable to slow down as much as I did, Dr. Raj Bhardwaj shares four pointers that are very helpful for gradually returning to normal while maintaining a necessary level of activity.
    •  Prioritize
    • Plan to take rest breaks.
    • Pace yourself.
    • Position in the environment
  3. Healing takes TIME and the amount of time needed to heal can vary across cases. Everybody’s bodies are different, and a number of factors can influence how long it takes. Basically, it takes as long as it’s going to take for you. You’re not just healing a bone; you’re healing your brain. You have 100,000 neurons with around a billion connections in one cubic millimeter of your brain. The potential impact of this kind of injury is clear.
  4. Progress may be UNEVEN. You may think you’re doing great and then crash, but don’t give up hope. This is one of the more frustrating elements of this process. You can feel like you are making great progress and BAM you hit another wall. Eventually, though, you get to move past it. If the ways you have been coping suddenly seem to not work as well, be prepared to adjust and keep trying.
  5. Pay attention to your PAIN. It is telling you something. Don’t try to push through the pain. Talk to a doctor if things worsen, especially in the first 24 hours. In many areas in life, you work harder to get more done and find more success. You can’t manage a head injury this way. The way forward is to slow down until you are below your pain threshold and gradually increase your activity and stamina. For me, I had to slow WAY down.
  6. You may need to REHABILITATE skills you didn’t even know were working so well for you before. This could include balance, vision, reading comprehension, focus, and memory. I had trouble with all of these to varying degrees. Vision was a big one. If you are having trouble reading you might need vision therapy.  Try to do your prescribed home programs as well as you can. It really will help more than it seems it will. One friend who experienced an even more severe brain injury than I did said that activities that helped her brain repattern through repetition (like step aerobics) really helped her. I have been learning how to play the guitar and I notice a difference. Using my right and left hands simultaneously and practicing patterns has been helping the right and left hemispheres of my brain communicate better. Even just cross your arms across your chest to activate both sides of your brain. You might be able to feel a difference. I can.
  7. Managing all of this sounds OVERWHELMING, and it is. Pat yourself on the back for doing something so challenging. Plus, go easy on yourself and try to be understanding of your circumstances. You may have to adjust to a new normal that is constantly changing, but I can attest that it changes for the better, even if it takes longer and is more complicated than you imagined.
  8. You will need extra SUPPORT from friends and family. Unless they have had a concussion before, it will be hard for them to understand your experience. Trust yourself and don’t be afraid to keep communicating. Become a confident advocate for yourself. Doctors and others will rely on your verbal testimony. Ask lots of questions, keep researching for avenues of treatment. Brainline.org is a very helpful resource.
  9. Try ALTERNATIVE/holistic health methods. I found a lot of relief from pain through several of these, including Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique and The Emotion Code and The Body Code. Your emotions can create pain. I have learned how to release emotions myself for relief from migraines and other pain. Even if the pain comes back, I have more tools with which to manage it than just Advil, although that helps too.IMG_2166
  10. Get measured EXERCISE that does not increase your pain. Consult a doctor about your level of activity (my doctor thankfully told me not to run for three months, although it turned into much longer than that). Get used to walking and building up slowly at first. You will build on past progress.
  11. Become a friend to RELAXING and starting over. Some days it’s all I can do to get out of bed. Other days I am more successful at accomplishing goals. Don’t pressure yourself but practice relaxing. Coloring is a great tool.  IMG_2167
  12. Finally, try not to COMPARE your pain to others’.  The physical, psychological, emotional consequences of an mTBI can be devastating. It is easy to rank your pain against those who are experiencing even greater trauma. But, having your fundamental abilities and parts of your personality affected, possibly permanently, needs to be grieved. It also calls for greater self-care. You are not being overly indulgent or precious because you want your full capacities and intellect back. Also, don’t compare your present progress against what you used to be able to accomplish while you were healthy. This is a recipe for frustration, although it is inevitable and can spur you forward in looking for help. Try to look forward to greater healing and progress.
  13. Finally, it’s okay to give up. Just know that you WILL improve. Keep moving forward. 

There is a lot more to say, but this is all I’ve got juice for right now. Maybe I will follow up with some more specifics, but take heart. Many have had this experience and perhaps you are going through this so you can help someone else. If you can’t do it today, that’s okay. I support you and know you’ll pull through.

What have you done to heal through a concussion? I would love to hear your lists.

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