A concussion is a discomposing slog to your brain, so it makes intuitive sense—even to the medical community—that lying very, very still should provide the fastest recovery. But concussed patients whose symptoms last longer than three weeks may benefit from getting up and exercising, according to a recent study by researchers at Canisius College.
Past studies have shown that exercise helps cognition and reduces symptoms of depression, and we know it improves balance , says Karl Kozlowski, the researcher who spearheaded the study. "Then the researchers at Canisius College and I thought, those are the same symptoms of a concussion."
Thirty-four study participants with post-concussion syndrome (PCS) ran on a graded treadmill for 10-minute durations while Kozlowski and his co-researchers monitored their self-reported symptoms. Participants reported their symptoms had reduced during and after exercise. Kozlowski and his colleagues thereby concluded that regular, low-level aerobic activity, lasting between 10 and 20 minutes, can alleviate long-term concussion symptoms and actually expedite recovery.
"With exercise, the brain regains the ability to auto-regulate blood flow in the brain," says Kozlowski, noting that a concussion causes the brain's blood flow to fluctuate, resulting in headaches and dizziness.
Of course, recommencing exercise too quickly, and too rigorously, makes symptoms worse, as our experience with athletes tells us, says Kozlowski. But exercising minimally, so one's heart rate stays at 70 percent its maximum—20 percent below the heart rate at which blood pressure exacerbates PCS symptoms—can help maintain healthy circulation to the brain.
For the medical community to act upon these findings, a longer clinical trial is needed. Until then, Kozlowski recommends talking with a physician in the event of a concussion, and, if symptoms do not resolve within seven days, seeing a neurologist.
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