Rest and relaxation remains the best response to a concussion or traumatic brain injury, according to the findings of a recent study from Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC).
The study, published in the March 2016 issue of American Journal of Pathology, shows that more than 24 hours of rest is “critical” to allowing the brain to properly recover and repair neural networks. Failing to take a brake and rest could lead to potential brain damage and inflammation that can last for over a year after the initial injury.
The study was conducted on mice, but the researchers say it may be replicated in humans.
“It is good news that the brain can recover from a hit if given enough time to rest and recover,” Mark Burns, assistant professor of neuroscience at GUMC, director of the Laboratory for Brain Injury and Dementia, and an author of the study, said in the press release. “But on the flip side, we find that the brain does not undertake this rebalancing when impacts come too close together.”
For the study, the researchers gave mice repetitive and mild concussions. For some mice, a single concussion was administered daily over the course of 30 days, while the other group was given a concussion weekly for 30 weeks. The findings showed that when a mouse experienced a single concussion, they lost between 10 and 15 percent of neuronal connections in their brains, but no inflammation or brain damage. If the mice were able to rest for three days, all of the connections appeared to repair themselves.
“The findings mirror what has been observed about such damage in humans years after a brain injury, especially among athletes,” Burns said in the press release. “Studies have shown that almost all people with single concussions spontaneously recover, but athletes who play contact sports are much more susceptible to lasting brain damage. These findings help fill in the picture of how and when concussions and mild head trauma can lead to sustained brain damage.”
Rest has long been the main recommendation for those who have recently experienced a concussion or TBI. Stimulating the brain through mental or physical activity has been shown to worsen symptoms such as headache, nausea, and fatigue, while rest gives the brain time to properly heal.
However, this practice has come under fire recently with critics calling it “counterproductive.” Specialists argue rest and limitations can contribute to depression and anxiety, which are already common in people with head injuries. This culminated in a group of specialists announcing at a conference that prolonged rest may not be the best treatment.
Whether rest is truly the best treatment will still be debated as more studies are done, but for now it remains the gold standard in brain injury recovery and rehabilitation.