Doctors have long suggested a few days of bed rest after a concussion, but athletes may or may not follow that advice. Now a new study has confirmed that rest after a concussion is critical to avoid long-lasting brain damage.
The study comes from Mark Burns, assistant professor of neuroscience, and other researchers at the Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) Laboratory for Brain Injury and Dementia. They published their study in the American Journal of Pathology. The scientists use mice to study the differences between experiencing a concussion, followed by a period of rest, versus repeated concussions.
The researchers divided mice into two different groups and gave them a concussion by hitting a mechanical piston against their cushioned heads, similar to what a football player may experience while wearing a helmet. One mouse group received mild concussions repeated daily for 30 days, while the other group received a mild concussion once per week for 30 weeks. The total number of concussions were the same but the rest period in between differed. When the mice experienced a concussion, they lost 10-15 percent of neuronal connections in their brains. When they were allowed to rest for three days, these neuronal connections returned to normal. However, when the mice only got one day to recover between concussions, the damage accumulated and they still experienced neuronal impairment and inflammation a year later. Although the daily concussed mice did not have learning impairment a year later, they had higher anxiety and problems with balance.
In the day after a concussion, the synapes, which are the connections between neurons in the brain, would shrink and then regrow. As the mice continued to receive concussions, they no longer experienced this cycle of shrinking and regrowth. The researchers believe this cycle helps protect the neurons after injury, by blocking calcium and other chemicals from contacting and killing neurons, so this meant that repeated concussions likely reduced the body’s ability to protect the brain.
In humans, someone who experiences a single concussion tends to recover. However, those who receive frequent concussion, such as athletes, are more likely to suffer lasting brain damage. The findings in mice seem to support these observations. However, rodents do tend to recover from injury more easily than humans.
The study results seem to support the idea that bed rest after a concussion is a good idea, allowing the brain to recover. However, some specialists have recently argued that telling those with a concussion to avoid physical activity, electronics, and homework may not be the best approach. They argue that this inactivity and disruption to a normal routine can lead to depression and anxiety, which could worsen health. More studies in humans may be able to help settle the debate.
A concussion is defined as some sort of impact that forces the head and brain back and forth rapidly. This force can damage brain cells and cause chemical changes. Some symptoms of a concussion include confusion, trouble answering questions or remembering events around the time of injury, sensitivity to lights or noise, blurry vision, clumsy movements, changes in mood or behavior, and vomiting or nausea. More serious signs of a concussion could include slurred speech, intense agitation and confusion, persistent vomiting, one enlarged pupil, and loss of consciousness. If any of these symptoms appear, see a doctor.
The researchers published their study results just in time for this Sunday’s Superbowl 50. Former professional football players tend to develop cognitive impairment at an earlier age, and this could be attributed to the repeated concussions they experience while playing. The study suggests that if any players take a hit to the head this Sunday, they should sit out the rest of the game on the bench and avoid post-game celebrations.