New Research Shows Aerobic Activity Shortly After Sustaining a Concussion Drastically Decreases Recovery Time

Concussions have long been treated with rest, rest and more rest. But a new study shows light exercise may have some amazing healing powers for head injuries.

For decades, the prescription for a concussion was rest, rest and more rest.

Only once the symptoms subsided should exercise resume.

But new research from the University of Toronto shows that performing low-impact, aerobic activity within 24 hours of the occurrence of injury can be the perfect recipe for quicker recovery. Participants included 253 people between the ages of 15 and 20 who had sustained a concussion. The researchers examined how the length of time elapsed between the occurrence of the concussion and the initiation of low-impact, aerobic activity affected participants return to sport, school and work. From the U of T News:

For each successive day of delaying the start of aerobic exercise, individuals had a less favorable recovery trajectory, according to the study. Initiating aerobic exercise at three and seven days following injury (compared to within one day of injury) was associated with a reduced probability of 36.5 percent and 73.2 percent respectively of a faster full return to sport, and a reduced probability of 45.9 percent and 83.1 percent respectively of a faster full return to school and work.

So the longer it took participants to engage in low-impact aerobic activity following the occurrence of injury, the longer it typically took them to return to play and school/work. This graph from the study further illustrates this:

But every type of aerobic activity may not be equally beneficial. The researchers recommend initially sticking with low-impact aerobic exercise with "minimal head movement," such as walking, stationary cycling and the elliptical. Jogging and swimming are not recommended during this early stage of recovery, as their higher amounts of head movement may exacerbate symptoms. The researchers also recommend that the intensity of the exercise be light enough that you can carry on a conversation as you perform it, and that there should be no worsening of symptoms associated with the exercise.

"Historically, concussion management was based on a simple recipe of rest until your symptoms go away.  However, what we have realized is that in many people symptoms take time to resolve and prolonged periods of rest may have a negative impact  because rest was interpreted as no activity in sport, school, work, screen and social activities," said Michael Hutchison, director of the concussion program at the MacIntosh clinic and co-author of the study, told U of T News. "We still believe that a brief reduction in activity from normal levels is beneficial...However, we recommend maintaining activity levels that do not exacerbate symptoms in the acute period."

For more details on the protocol and guidelines utilized, view the full study as published in the journal PLOS One.

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