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The 6 Stages of Concussion Recovery: Progress and Rehabilitation

A recent study evaluated 1,751 male and female athletes recovering from concussions. 80% of these athletes stopped experiencing symptoms after 14 days and could return to practice after 24 days.

But nearly 11% of these athletes still had not returned to practice after six months post-injury. Interestingly, the researchers in this study uncovered some risk factors for a slower concussion recovery process.

One of these risk factors was getting fewer physician assessments during their recovery period. This may indicate that slower concussion rehabilitation progress is linked to poor compliance with the 6 stages of concussion recovery.

Whether you are an athlete or not, complying with your physician's concussion treatment plan may increase your chances of a speedy and full recovery. Learn more about the post-concussion recovery stages in this post.

The 6 Stages of Concussion Recovery

Doctors have been diagnosing concussions since at least the 10th century. As such, there is a ton of anecdotal and research evidence regarding how to treat this type of traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Many doctors follow a six-stage aftercare process recommendation. These stages work best for athletes, but a medical professional can modify them for anyone recovering from a concussion.

We will talk more about these modifications in a moment. But first, let's go over the six stages of recovery that physicians have designed for sports-related concussion patients.

Stage 1. No Activity

The first stage of concussion recovery is rest. During this time, individuals should not take part in any physical activity. They should also take time off from school or work to reduce mental activity.

How long do athletes have to rest after a concussion? The exact timeline will depend on symptom severity and the doctor's preference. In general, athletes can expect to spend at least two to three days in this first stage.

Stage 2. Light Exercise

Your physician may recommend a return to normal daily activities after 3-5 days of rest. Individuals can return to work or school and engage in mild physical activity. The best light exercises to incorporate during this time are:

  • Walking

  • Swimming

  • Light stretching

  • Cycling on a stationary bike

  • Using an elliptical

  • Medicine ball drills

  • Mild sport-specific exercises

The only time you should stop exercising during this stage is if you experience new or re-emerging symptoms. Otherwise, studies show that exercise is safe and may even speed up post-concussion recovery timelines.

Stage 3. No-Contact Sports Exercises

As long as your symptoms are progressing, you can resume sports-specific exercises about a week after your injury. However, these exercises should not require any contact, especially with your head, neck, or spine.

Other tips to avoid overdoing it include taking frequent 20-minute breaks. Again, you should return to mild-intensity exercise if you begin to experience new or re-emerging concussion symptoms.

At this point, if symptoms do continue, a doctor may order brain imaging tests. Prolonged symptoms could indicate a more serious injury.

Stage 4. Vigorous No-Contact Training Drills

Most people can safely resume high-intensity exercise after a few weeks of recovery. Of course, this will depend on concussion severity, recovery progress, and physician preference.

It is at this point that athletes can restart resistance training. You can also incorporate more movements requiring coordination. However, avoid any contact activities until you have full medical clearance.

Stage 5. Full-Contact Practice

When an athlete can return to practice depends on a variety of factors. As we've mentioned, one of these factors is attending all follow-up assessments during the first 14 days post-injury. Other factors include:

  • Gender (female athletes tend to recover slower)

  • Post-injury symptom severity, as measured by SCAT

  • Post-injury Standardized Assessment of Concussion score

  • Whether the athlete received the injury during practice or gameplay (athletes injured during practice tend to recover slower)

In the study of athletes with concussions we discussed earlier, 77.6% of participants were able to return to practice after less than 60 days. 83.4% returned to practice within 90 days post-injury.

Stage 6. Full-Contact Games

Most athletes need full medical clearance before they can return to play. Only Arizona and South Carolina allow athletes to return to play on the same day of their injury with a health professional's approval.

Health care providers have various requirements for medical clearance. These requirements may include being symptom-free for at least 24 hours and no longer needing medication to treat concussion symptoms.

Some doctors may allow their patients to return to gameplay after only one week post-injury. Children and teens may need longer.

Modifying These Stages for Non-Athlete Recovery

Not all concussions are sports-related. If you are a non-athlete with a concussion, you may wonder how your doctor will modify the above stages for your lifestyle.

Concussion doctors may provide recommendations based on early-, mid-, and late-stage recovery. Learn more about what these stages might look like for you next.

Early-Stage Recovery

Early-stage recovery begins immediately after your injury. Then, most people remain in this stage for at least two to three days.

You should always see a doctor if you experience concussion symptoms, no matter how mild it may seem. Headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to sound or light, and loss of consciousness are all indications of a concussion.

A doctor will examine your symptoms and provide a diagnosis. You will also receive a recovery plan to follow. However, there is no definitive diagnosis or treatment for TBIs.

Like athletes, non-athlete concussion patients should rest mentally and physically for at least a few days post-injury. That includes taking time off from school and work.

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes to speed up healing. Abstaining from alcohol and drugs is a common suggestion to decrease the concussion recovery timeline.

At this point, your doctor may also recommend treatments to help manage your symptoms. This may include medications for lingering headaches, getting plenty of sleep, or seeking chiropractic care for pain relief.

Mid-Stage Recovery

Mid-stage recovery is all about progress. At this stage, you can start incorporating activities back into your daily schedule. Your doctor may also clear you to return to school or work.

You may recall that we mentioned that light physical activity may speed up your recovery timeline. But researchers have only conducted these studies on athletes so far.

Athletes want to recover faster so they can return to play. As a non-athlete, your goals may be completely different.

For example, say you want to recover with as few symptom regressions as possible. In this case, you don't want to rush your return to normal activities.

Instead, your doctor may recommend returning to mental and physical activity more gradually. Or you may benefit more from a medically-supervised physical or cognitive therapy program.

No matter which path you choose, monitor your symptoms closely during this stage. If you experience any new or returning symptoms, stop the activity you're doing, rest, and wait a few more days before trying again.

Late-Stage Recovery

Many people reach the end stages of their recovery journey within two to four weeks post-injury. At this stage, the goal is to continue making progress.

Importantly, that means attending all follow-up appointments. Do not skip out on rehabilitative treatment your doctor recommends, as this could delay your recovery.

You should also be able to return to the activities you used to enjoy. However, your doctor may recommend special adjustments to prevent symptoms from re-emerging.

Some people begin to experience emotional distress during these stages. These emotional changes may be symptoms or signs of a concussion.

In other cases, mood shifts may occur because the individual wants to feel normal again. They may ramp up activities too soon in an attempt to recover faster.

Often, these attempts end up backfiring, leading to even longer recovery timelines. To keep this from happening to you, talk to a counselor or therapist about your feelings. That way, you can deal with them properly and avoid complicating your progress.

Sallie Empowers People With TBIs

No one knows when a sports injury or accident will happen. But there are certain steps to help individuals properly recover and return to their old selves.

These steps include seeing a certified physician, getting the proper diagnosis, tracking your symptoms, and being kind to your body. All of these steps can be achieved with the help of Sallie from Power of Patients.

Sallie aims to assist individuals with concussions and TBIs by being an incredibly easy-to-use and free symptom-tracking dashboard. The robust data collection approach includes many symptoms for our users to task.

Get Sallie from Power of Patients

The 6 stages of concussion recovery can help athletes return to play faster. If you are a non-athlete, your doctor may modify these stages to better suit your journey. Ensure you follow all your physician's recommendations for the best results.

By using Sallie, individuals are taking the necessary steps for the care and future prevention of traumatic brain injuries. Whether or not you are involved in a sport or dealing with any type of brain injury, just know that Power of Patients' Sallie is made for you.

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