what can physical therapy do for concussion

What Can Physical Therapy Do for Concussion?


Medically reviewed by Domonique Martin

Upwards of 3.8 million sports and recreation-related concussions occur every year in the United States. At least half a million of these cases involve children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while a concussion is considered a “mild” brain injury, symptoms can still be severe and have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life.

Physical therapy for concussions cannot reverse the chemical changes that occur with a brain injury. However, it can alleviate symptoms, help patients return to normal activities earlier, and lower the risk of long-term impairment.

What Is a Concussion?

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI) that is caused by a blow, bump, or hit to the head, or by trauma to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth. That sudden motion forces the brain against the skull, which can damage and stretch brain cells.

This damage to brain tissue causes unpredictable chemical and metabolic changes that affect how the brain and body function. As the body’s main control center, damage to the brain can manifest as short- or long-term physical, cognitive, or behavioral symptoms.

Concussions commonly happen from falls, car accidents, and sports injuries. Someone who has experienced one concussion may have a higher risk of being diagnosed with a second, more serious brain injury in the future.

Concussion Signs and Symptoms

No two brain injuries are alike. Concussion symptoms vary from patient to patient, depending on the nature and extent of brain trauma.

Concussion signs and symptoms may include:

  • Balance problems
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Inappropriate crying/laughter
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of focus and concentration
  • Memory problems
  • Mood changes: anxiety/depression
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light/noise
  • Sleeping more or less than usual

Concussion recovery focuses on allowing the brain to heal, followed by rehabilitation in areas where deficits have occurred. The process can take up to two weeks for adults, and up to four weeks for children. Recovery for severe TBIs can take several years.

What Is Post-Concussion Syndrome?

Post-concussion syndrome (PCS) is the persistence of concussion symptoms beyond the normal, expected course of recovery. Patients with PCS often have problems with sleep as well as anxiety, depression, and irritability.

Physical symptoms like neck pain, headache, and light and sound sensitivity are also common with PCS. It is important to know the signs of PCS and take steps to treat them to keep a brain injury from negatively impacting the injured person’s physical and emotional well-being.

What Is Second Impact Syndrome?

Second impact syndrome (SIS) or repetitive head injury syndrome occurs when a person suffers a second head injury while they are recovering from an initial head injury. While this condition is rare, it is serious, nonetheless.

Prevention is the key to avoiding a secondary injury. Patients should follow the guidance of their healthcare provider and physical therapist to protect the healing brain and resume approved activities only when it is safe to do so.

What Can Physical Therapy Do for Concussion Patients?

Concussion care in physical therapy assesses and treats a wide range of symptoms related to brain injury. It involves a proactive approach to helping patients return to activities safely and more quickly than without physical therapy.

Physical therapy is unique in that every concussion care treatment plan is created precisely for the patient based on their symptoms, challenges, and recovery goals. Physical therapists understand the importance of brain rest and determine when it is safe to start physical activity—and which interventions are appropriate.

It is also beneficial to work with a physical therapist after a concussion so they can monitor your progress and look for signs of post-concussion syndrome. Therapists educate patients on practical ways to prevent second-impact injuries and provide them peace of mind knowing that when it’s time to return to their favorite sports and activities—they are ready and healthy.

Physical Therapy for a Concussion: What to Expect

If you are prescribed physical therapy for a concussion, this is a brief overview of what you can expect from your rehabilitative journey.

Concussion physical therapy begins with a thorough physical exam and assessment of your symptoms. Various tests are used to evaluate your memory, reaction time, and processing. Your physical therapist creates a concussion treatment plan based on those results.

Concussion therapy may include a combination of the following treatments and therapies:

  • Treatment for headaches and neck pain, and to strengthen muscles to better support the head to help prevent future injuries
  • Vestibular rehabilitation to improve balance and stability and reduce dizziness
  • Return to work and life training to help patients ease back into their routines safely and gradually
  • Education on safe activity, symptom awareness, and preventing TBI recurrence
  • Baseline testing for athletes to compare pre-injury function to post-injury symptoms
  • Return-to-play protocol to comply with school and youth sports requirements before injured players can resume playing

If you or someone you care about has experienced a concussion or TBI, physical therapy can be an essential—and effective— part of the recovery process. Find a physical therapy clinic near you.

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Medically reviewed by

Domonique Martin

Director of Sports Residency Program

Dr. Domonique Martin obtained her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Alabama State University prior to completing her Sports Physical Therapy Residency with Drayer Physical Therapy. Dr. Martin holds a Board Certification in Sports Physical Therapy (SCS) and is a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC). She is the Director of Upstream Rehab Institute’s Sports Residency Program, Clinical Coordinator of Drayer Physical Therapy Institute- Finley Center in Birmingham, AL, Regional Site Coordinator of Clinical Education to physical therapy students, and a course developer and lead instructor with the Institute of Advanced Musculoskeletal Treatments. Her areas of special interest include concussions, female athletes, and overhead athletes.

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