Traditionally, the initial treatment after an athlete suffers a concussion involves rest. That rest includes cognitive rest. It also usually consists of rest from physical activity after a concussion, such as playing sports or exercising.

Some experts have expressed concern that forcing young athletes to avoid all physical activity might actually be detrimental. Essentially, a lack of any physical activity after a concussion might lead to depression, anxiety and self-esteem issues in the concussed athlete.

Physical activity and duration of symptoms after a concussion

A study recently published online in the American Journal of Sports Medicine adds some valuable information to this debate. David R. Howell, PhD and others at Boston Children’s Hospital studied 364 patients who presented to its Sports Concussion Clinic. They assessed these patients who were aged 8 to 27 with questionnaires that collected data on post-concussion symptoms, loss of consciousness, the number of prior concussions and more at each follow-up visit. They used that data to determine which factors were associated with the duration of symptoms after concussion.

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The researchers found that the initial postconcussion symptoms scale score, which reflects the number of symptoms and their severity, and being a female were associated with longer duration of symptoms. Interestingly, physical activity after a concussion was not associated with duration of symptoms. In fact, for concussed patientsbetween the ages of 13 and 18, higher levels of physical activity were associated with shorter duration of symptoms.

Should athletes engage in physical activity after a concussion?

This information is important for concussed athletes and their parents, but it doesn’t suggest that all young athletes should engage in strenuous physical activity right away. We don’t know exactly when exercise should begin or how intense the exercise can be. Likely activity will need to be tailored for each athlete based on the nature of his or her injury. The neurologist or physician treating the athlete can help with these recommendations. Still, if we can add some physical activity for an athlete after a concussion, it could help get him or her back to normal quickly.

Is physical activity after a concussion harmful?

Howell DR, Mannix RC, Quinn B, Taylor JA, Tan CO, Meehan WP. Physical Activity Level and Symptom Duration Are Not Associated After Concussion. Am J Sports Med. 201 Feb 2.