Post Concussion: Self-Care for a Healing Brain
Concussions and their effects have been, increasingly, analyzed and heavily discussed in recent years in medical and athletic circles alike. As awareness spreads, the conversation is now commonplace with many members of the general public.
Up until my own experience with a concussion and resulting Post-Concussion Syndrome, I was interested in the topic from a natural health and wellness perspective given my expertise in both holistic nutrition, fitness, and contact sports. But the topic now hits home for me in a way I never expected.
At 31 years old, I’ve been playing rugby for 16 years. Recently, I also took up Muay Thai training as an alternative sport to rugby. You might assume that I experienced a concussion from my contact sport choices, but I was never so sure. Yes, I’ve taken my fair share of bumps and knocks, but I can’t recall ever having a singular event that felt like a concussion. I certainly did not get diagnosed with a concussion.
But about 3 years ago, I started experiencing symptoms out of the blue. At the time, I was going through many personal and professional life changes, so I brushed the new symptoms off and attributed them to stress. But, eventually, these symptoms could not be ignored and prompted me to seek help.
I felt down, sluggish, overwhelmed, and experienced persistent eye pain. I used to describe my most common symptom as, “a sharp claw squeezing the back of my eyeballs from inside of my head while I was breakdancing after taking 10 shots of tequila.” My already-present anxiety was heightened, my already-restless sleep was even more agitated, and I had only tiny windows of productive energy in my day, which I used to focus on my independent nutrition and fitness business.
What we tell ourselves matters
What I do for a living is essential to my story, because of my critical self-talk and my perfectionist attitude towards my level of responsibility in being “optimally well.” As I said, I’m a wellness professional so constantly felt like I should “know better” and feel “better.” I’ve come to learn that this kind of inner dialogue is destructive.
I’d even go as far as to say that my overbearing self-talk likely slowed down my healing. Thoughts such as “I’m such a hypocrite that can’t even take my own advice,” constantly crept into my mind, causing even more stress and anxiety.
Without naming or acknowledging that something was really wrong with me, I eventually succumbed to the symptoms and retreated into a simple life consisting of a handful of personal relationships, my clients, and daily naps.
I did, intuitively, suspect a concussion. But, neither I nor the medical professionals I had seen, confirmed an actual diagnosis for three years. This period was especially difficult since I had not been able to pinpoint a specific occurrence that led to these symptoms.
For the duration of those, undiagnosed, three years, I explored the possibilities of my symptoms with various practitioners including my family doctor, my therapist, an optometrist, an ophthalmologist, an allergist, a dentist, a chiropractor, and a neurologist.
I also had multiple comprehensive blood tests and an MRI. I was even prescribed nasal and migraine medications, as well as medical marijuana. However, my symptoms persisted. In retrospect, I should’ve seen a concussion specialist from the start, but I couldn’t have made that decision without a diagnosis or without the knowledge I now have.
I’ve learned a lot since getting properly diagnosed. I know I’m not alone in my Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS) journey, which is why I’m honoured to share what I’ve learned with you here.
Anyone can experience a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which is, “a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.” Most of us are aware that athletes who play contact or collision sports are at risk of concussions, which is considered a “mild TBI”, but non-athletes can experience mild to severe TBI as well.
Regardless of how it happens, most people who suffer an injury have to navigate the non-linear healing process. Some people heal, some people never return to normal, or in severe cases, some people’s conditions actually get worse and can potentially lead to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Fortunately, a concussion rehabilitation specialist and a registered massage therapist recognized some of my symptoms as possibly Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS): “the persistence of a constellation of physical, cognitive, emotional, and sleep symptoms beyond the usual recovery period after a concussion.” With their guidance, I received treatments including cranial massage, vestibular therapy, and vision therapy.
While prioritizing their treatments and recommendations, I also focused my attention on self-care for my healing brain. Although I am not completely symptom-free, I feel significantly better and continue to improve day by day.
Activities that supported my healing from Post-Concussion Syndrome
Nourishing with quality and nutrient-dense foods
Naturally, food is our first source of fuel for our mind and body. In the case of a brain injury, the body’s ability to use fuel is less efficient (i.e., the body runs out of fuel faster which contributes to fatigue). To increase nutrient density, try to choose a variety of whole foods, and prioritize good-quality protein and healthy fats (amino acids and fatty acids are critical for repairing cellular damage and reducing inflammation from trauma). Also consider supplementing with therapeutic doses of nutraceuticals from high-quality sources specifically Omega-3, Creatine, Magnesium, Curcumin, and B-vitamins.
Short-term stress is part of life, but to a healing brain, an increase in stress load can be harmful. So make a list of priorities and the different stress factors involved with those priorities, then be honest with what you’re able to handle. Reduce your work-load as much as possible, outsource what you can, seek help where you can, and consider parking some of your ideas and tasks until after recovery. Do less, rest more, and give yourself permission to do so.
Increasing mindfulness practices
After a concussion, there is a risk of anxiety, depression and mood disorders, and possible difficulties with, what may seem like, simple tasks. Do your best to practice mindfulness as often as possible: be present, have self-compassion, take your time, use various tools such as voice notes, journals or apps to jot down reminders and emotional observations. Notice how you may be feeling, notice the shallowness or depth of your breathing, and try meditating as it can help manage stress, improve cognitive function and support recovery.
Moving and exercising
After rest, movement is the next priority. Similar to nutraceuticals and medication, the type and duration of movement depend on the context of the individual. Start with non-contact aerobic exercises like walking and low-impact yoga since it “increases brain chemicals that promote neuroplasticity and neurogenesis; decreases oxidative stress, which can impair brain cell function and lead to cell death; and reduces neuroinflammation and cognitive dysfunction.” Exercise also helps to improve mood, manage stress, and increase focus. The return to play or engaging in more vigorous activity depends on the existence of the symptoms.
Choosing a supportive circle
People heal differently after a brain injury and depending on the severity, they may experience physical, behavioural, emotional and cognitive consequences. A person may seem fine but in reality, he or she may be really struggling with coping, feeling inadequate, experiencing low-self esteem, or having difficulty understanding what is happening to them.
In my experience, it is imperative to surround yourself with patient, understanding, and supportive people.
Since learning about my PCS, I theorized what may have happened. I may have experienced multiple subconcussive blows during my almost two decades of playing rugby (“subconcussive blow does not meet the criteria for clinical diagnosis of concussion or mild traumatic brain injury, it is hypothesized to have an adverse long-term effect in some individuals, particularly via repetitive occurrences”).
I could have also experienced concussions from hitting my head on the pavement after falling off my bicycle while wearing a helmet. Or, I may have also experienced concussions from the several times I reached down to pick up my phone and smacked the back of my head on the table or the cupboard.
Scientists and medical professionals are still researching the contributing variables of injury and recovery including the severity of TBI, frequency, and health history. As more is known and understood, symptoms and appropriate treatment protocols are updated and disseminated. Much of the current research has focused on athletes, especially male soccer and football players, although there is growing evidence of concussions in adolescent or senior populations, individuals in workplace accidents, in military combat or in cases of domestic abuse. All this to say that Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS), is considered somewhat controversial since the variables are hard to pinpoint.
Ultimately, my brain, the most important organ in my body, was hurt and it needed to heal. The most salient lesson I learned through this experience has been to prioritize my self-care. This may sound like a simple answer to a complex situation, but my already-high stress levels, coupled with out-of-sync priorities definitely contributed to confusing my symptoms and prolonging my recovery.
Please don’t hesitate to reach for appropriate medical help if you are experiencing any of the symptoms I’ve described.