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Understanding Concussions and How Chiropractors Can Help

In light of recent news from the Pittsburgh Penguins regarding Sidney Crosby sustaining another concussion during practice last Friday, the hockey community is a buzz. Crosby’s concussion history is well documented of recent, having sustained three in less than six years. Discussions and speculations of what this means for Crosby's season, and even career, are populating the Internet and sports talk shows.

Despite the advances in sports medicine as it relates to concussion diagnosis, management, and return to play guidelines, concussions remain a challenging condition for all involved.

The reality is concussions are truly challenging. Despite measures to "prevent concussions", concussions are not preventable. There is no such thing as concussion prevention. There is no single piece of equipment, be it a helmet or mouth guard, that is capable of preventing a concussion. Rather than prevention, the focus is on minimizing concussion rates through proper identification, management, and education.

Consider that within the United States, there are over 300,000 sport-related concussions per year and research suggests concussion rates are on the rise. If your child is in contact sports, there’s a risk of concussion. Thus making this is an extremely relevant conversation and one that shouldn't be taken lightly. That said, the goal of this article is to offer insights into what a concussion is, how they should be managed, and the chiropractors potential role in the process.

What is a concussion?
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury defined as a short-lived loss of brain function due to trauma that resolves spontaneously. With a concussion, there is no structural damage to the brain. Simply put, only brain function is altered.

Encased within the the skull, the brain floats in a pool of fluid, known as cerebrospinal fluid.  These protections allow the brain to withstand many of the minor injuries that occur in day-to-day life. However, if there is sufficient force to cause the brain to bounce against the bones of the skull, then there is potential for injury. It is the impact of the brain against the inside of the skull that cause the brain to be injured and interrupt its function. This impact is often due to rapid acceleration and deceleration movements of the head and neck. Rapid acceleration and deceleration of the head and neck can be created from a direct blow to the head or from impact that results in whiplash injury common in motor vehicle accidents and falls.

How are concussions diagnosed and treated?
First and foremost, anyone suspected of having a brain injury should seek evaluation by a neurologist trained in concussion evaluation.

The signs and symptoms of concussion may be obvious or very subtle. Most concussions are sustained without the individual losing consciousness or "blacking out". In several cases, the individual may not be aware they have sustained a concussion or may not connect their symptoms with a head injury. Complicating the picture is the fact that some individuals may have delayed onset of their symptoms, not presenting with concussion symptoms for several hours or days after the initial injury.

Typical symptoms of concussion include:
  • Headache
  • Difficulty concentrating or feeling “foggy”
  • Poor recall or memory of recent events
  • Changes in mood or personality
  • Slower reaction times
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Low tolerance of bright lights or loud sounds
  • Irritability
  • Changes in sleep patterns, such as being unable to sleep or sleeping more
 
In some cases, chiropractors can be the first point of access for individuals who recently sustained a head or neck injury, such as those occurring in sports, car accident or fall. Chiropractors, especially ones who are certified by the American Chiropractic Rehabilitation Board, regularly manage athletes who suffer sports injuries, such as concussions, and are trained in proper diagnosis and understand the importance of referral for additional medical evaluation. Gallagher Performance offers such quality in their chiropractic services and has been part of the co-managment team in a number of concussion cases.

An effective tool chiropractors may use to assess the severity of a concussion is called the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool 2 (SCAT2). The SCAT2 is used to evaluate, assess, and manage concussions in athletes 10 years and older with the end goal of safely returning the athlete back to the sport.

How are concussions treated and what is the Chiropractors role?
After evaluation, rest is the best treatment. Depending on severity, most symptoms resolve relatively quickly while treatment is directed at symptom control for headaches, nausea, dizziness, and sleep problems. Rest does not simply mean physical rest. Brain rest is equally important as physical rest. Exposure to television, computers, and smartphones and other devices can stimulate the brain and aggravate symptoms. Limiting use of those devices may be helpful in allowing the brain to recover more quickly. Brain rest may also involve student-athletes being held out of the classroom and encouraged not to read, study, or taking exams as this mental effort can aggravate symptoms and possibly delay healing.

When it comes to management and, for athletes, return to play guidelines, often a team of medical professionals are involved. Chiropractors may find themselves as part of this co-management team.

Chiropractors may not be the first medical professional you imagine when it comes to concussion management and treatment, but sport and rehabilitation chiropractors are trained to support the patient during the recovery process. Largely this is due to their focus on treating spinal joint dysfunction present in the head or neck, myofascial techniques to restore muscular and connective tissue function, and sensory-motor based exercise protocols to restore ideal neuromuscular function. For further consideration, two recent literature reviews outlined how chiropractors can effectively manage athletes with concussions (1,2).

Ultimately, the brain will recover at it’s own pace. For athletes, return to play guidelines are established to ensure they are safe to return to sport competition. This involves the close observation of the athlete to ensure no symptoms are present during gradual exposure to increased cardiovascular demands all the way to more intensive and sport-specific measures.

Dear Patient, Be Patient
While 80 - 90% of individuals who suffer a concussion will recover within 7 - 10 days, some will experience symptoms for weeks or months. The length of recovery is not necessarily related to the extent of the initial injury.

Employers or school officials should be informed of the concussion diagnosis and aware of potential issues of poor performance due to difficulty with concentration and comprehension. Return to sport is fully dependent upon complete resolution of concussion symptoms and this decision should come from the neurologist overseeing care. Remember to be patient. The brain is a delicate structure and will heal with time. Don’t rush your recovery process. Returning too quickly can put you at increased risk for worsening your previous condition. Let the brain recover and reboot.

Gallagher Performance has extensive training and experience in evaluation and co-management of patients and athletes who have sustained a concussion. Our experience allows us to assist in providing gold standard care when it comes to concussions.

This blog post was written by Sean Gallagher, DC, DACRB, PES
To schedule your appointment, call (724) 875-2657.

References
Johnson, C.D., et al. Chiropractic and concussion in sport: a narrative review of the literature. Journal of Chiropractic Medicine 2013 (12):216-229.
Shane, E.R., et al. Sports Chiropractic management of concussions using the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool 2 symptom scoring, serial examinations, and graded return to play protocol: a retrospective case series. Journal of  Chiropractic Medicine 2013 (12): 252-9.
 
 
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