In recent years, the brain-body connection is accepted as a powerful influencer of health. The connection between stress and health has emerged with evidence showing that meditation can influence various aspects of physical well being and athleticism including the release of hormones associated with performance, like testosterone and growth hormone.
Now another aspect of the brain-body connection is coming to light. A groundbreaking new study found that college athletes were nearly twice as likely to suffer a serious knee, ankle or lower body injury if they had suffered a concussion in the prior year. Researchers at the University of North Carolina gathered data from 44 athletes in a variety of sports, including football, basketball, field hockey, and soccer, who had suffered a sports-related concussion and matched them with non-concussed athletes who served as a control group.
Results showed that the athletes who had experienced a concussion were 1.6 times as likely to suffer a severe lower body injury in the year after the concussion than the control group. Scientists wondered if these athletes might just be injury prone, so they compared injury rates pre- and post-concussion within the concussion group. They found that within a year after concussion, the group of athletes that had suffered a head injury was nearly two times more likely to experience a lower extremity injury after concussion than before.
Researchers believe that concussions may impair the brain’s ability to coordinate physical movement. Both short- and long-term deficits have been noted in gait and balance after concussion. Changes in movement patterns cause abnormal trunk biomechanics, which would alter the ability to transfer force from side-to-side and from the upper to the lower body. This increases injury risk when moving at high speeds. Additionally, it’s believed that subtle disruptions to brain pathways may increase the interval between reaction and movement time.
Perhaps what is most alarming is that this study indicates that athletes suffer concussion-related decrements for at least a year and possibly longer. Studies show that 85 percent of concussed athletes return to sports within seven days of the head injury, which is likely before brain pathways have healed and biomechanics returned to normal.
So, how can you lower your injury risk if you’ve suffered a concussion?
Naturally, the first step is to work with a sports medicine team that has experience assessing recovery from concussion. Studies suggest that recovery varies widely and athletes need to be assessed on an individual basis. It should be noted that young athletes may require more time to recover from concussion than adults.
Additionally, emerging research shows there are few strategies that may hasten recovery from concussion.
Supplement With Creatine
Anytime an athlete experiences a concussion, there is a reduction in creatine levels in the brain. This leads to the production of reactive oxygen species and the onset of oxidative stress, which causes a variety of neuromotor problems including poor brain function and reduced coordination.
Initial studies suggest that creatine supplementation may be neuroprotective, reducing the negative effects of lack of blood flow that coincides with concussion. This has been demonstrated with animal studies showing a reduction of cortical brain damage of as much as 50 percent.
Although there are no studies testing the effect of creatine supplementation on concussion recovery in humans, supplementing with as little as 5 grams a day has been shown to improve coordination, memory, and reaction time in sleep deprived athletes.
Perform Vigorous Physical Activity Once You’re Cleared
A recent study from McMaster University in Canada performed on youth athletes who had suffered a concussion tested the effect of an incremental cycling test to exhaustion on concussion symptoms. Researchers were surprised to find that the severity of symptoms and the overall number of symptoms both improved after the exercise test. Improvements lasted for at least 24 hours after testing. They suggest that a vigorous exercise protocol has two uses for athletes who are recovering from a concussion.
First, it is a relatively safe diagnostic test to assess readiness to return to training that doesn’t put the athlete at high risk of injury. Pedaling on a bike avoids the cutting, jumping, and running movements typical of team sports that convey an increased injury risk when motor function is reduced.
Second, exercise may improve symptoms and accelerate recovery. This evidence is preliminary and researchers advise working closely with sports medicine personnel to monitor and assess symptoms and recovery.
A negative side effect of concussion is that athletes are advised to rest, which can lead to deconditioning. Depressive symptoms often follow and there is an increase in risk of injury once the athlete returns to regular training since strength, conditioning, and muscle mass may be lost. Naturally, rest is advised in the immediate post-concussion period, but researchers write that there is no evidence showing prolonged rest in patients with concussion for more than several weeks is beneficial.
The challenge is to identify the correct amount and intensity of activity. Researchers recommend simple conditioning and strength activities that don’t rely heavily on complex motor patterns or require cutting, jumping, or other high force movements that put joints at risk when an athlete’s coordination is still recovering.
Final Words: No athlete wants to be sidelined with a concussion. Careful monitoring by coaches and sports medical staff is essential for ensuring recovery and avoiding serious injury while the athlete is still vulnerable. Although it’s a fine line to determine the ideal level of activity, early evidence suggests creatine supplementation and appropriate exercise may accelerate recovery and help avoid deconditioning and depression.