(Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a healthcare professional. The article below is for education and information purposes only.)
Even a so-called mild brain injury can cause wide-ranging symptoms that affect many parts of a person’s life. The human brain is incredibly complex and relatively delicate, and blows and forces to it can have significant repercussions. The brain is, after all, the control centre of every aspect of a person’s life. Not only is it essential for keeping us alive, but it is also crucial for functions such as our speech, movement, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. In other words, it is central to everything that relates to our lives and who we are.
Thankfully our brains are also very adaptable and so if a brain injury occurs then we now know that thanks to neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change – there is scope for the brain to change, rewire itself and heal. Every person is different, and each brain injury is different, so the degree of improvement does depend on which parts of the brain have been injured and various factors relating to the individual person. But overall this is really good news and should offer hope to many who sustain a brain injury and to caregivers of someone who has.
On my own personal journey of healing from a mild brain injury after a car accident in 2016, I have tried many therapies and interventions that have made a difference, some by myself and some with the help of healthcare professionals. I am not one hundred percent better yet, but I’ve made big improvements over that time, and I continue to make progress. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless when you’ve had a brain injury. There are many times when I felt that I would never improve or get better. When I look back, I’m amazed at the progress I’ve made. I still sometimes have bad patches during the day or in a week, but overall I’ve regained much of my functioning, and I’m able to do so much more than previously. Writing this article would have been unthinkable even a year ago. In this blog post, I will share five tools you can put in your concussion recovery toolbox to help fix or alleviate symptoms – neuroplasticity, breathing exercises, meditation, balance training and exercise.
1. ‘Use It Or Lose It’
One thing that really helps, and which in some ways seems counterintuitive, is to keep trying to do things that are hard for you. This is the neuroplasticity element, and harnessing this can help you to retrain your brain. You have probably heard the phrase, ‘Use It Or Lose It’. This is very applicable to brain injury. If you stop doing a certain activity or do less of it, those neural connections in your brain that enable you to do that activity will become weaker, and the activity will become harder to do if you leave a big gap before trying to do it again. So, set about restoring those neural connections. If you’re struggling in a particular area, then this has very likely been affected by the injury. So, for example, if you are struggling with walking, cooking or reading then keep doing that over and over again, every single day. If it doesn’t work one way, then try another way. You will re-teach your brain that thing. Babies, toddlers and young child have to repeat things over and over again to learn a particular skill, whether it’s walking, eating or speaking. It takes a relatively long time and many mistakes are made but eventually, the child gets the hang of things. That’s how I’ve approached my recovery as I’ve tried to rewire and re-teach my brain certain skills. If you feel really tired or frustrated after doing something, then stop and rest and try another time or another day. Go gently at first because it will take time. Gradually you will start to see improvements. Just keep going and keep trying. Switch to something that isn’t so taxing and then you can always come back to the skill you are working on some other time. Try doing that activity in different ways, as the old way may not work so well. Most importantly, be patient.
2. Breathing exercises
Ever since my concussion, and still today, I experience quite a lot of anxiety. I think this is partly the injury, but also partly because I get stressed more easily than I used to. I also think that after an injury, the brain is on high alert – it has been threatened and is constantly scanning for danger after that. I often find myself in a heightened state of survival or ‘fight or flight’ mode. One of the ways this can affect our physiology is to give us shallow breathing which keeps us in an anxious state.
I find breathing exercises really helpful to help relax me, and I still do these in one form or another several times a day. One way is to breathe around an imaginary square or a rectangle, which my counsellor at Headway taught me. Imagine a rectangle or square in front of you, any size. Imagine taking a breath in as you visualise the top line of the shape from left to right. Then breathe out as you imagine the right-hand line from top to bottom. Breathe in again as you picture the line across the bottom from right to left. Then breathe out again as you picture the line on the left from top to bottom. Imagining a square shape gives you even breaths, but if you picture a rectangle, use the longer sides to breathe out. Another option is to breathe in for a count of 6 and then out for a count of 10. There are lots of different ways to calm down your breathing and as a result, your mind and body. If you search for ‘breathing exercises’ on YouTube you will find lots of different variations. I suggest you just try out what feels comfortable to you and whatever you find most effective.
Meditation is also very helpful for getting us into a more relaxed state. I never imagined that I would meditate – I thought it was only something Buddhists did. I was quite resistant to it at first as I didn’t see how it could be effective, even though it was recommended in the concussion Facebook group I was in at the time and by my neuropsychologist. But I was desperate, so I decided to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did.
Here are some basic instructions for a simple meditation. Find a quiet spot, and either sitting or lying down, preferably with your eyes closed, start to breathe in and out, taking long, deep breaths. Focus on your breathing and try to empty your thoughts from your head. This is really hard to do! If a thought comes into your head, notice, acknowledge it and let it go, focusing back on the breathing. It will be almost impossible at first. Set a timer if you can and try to do this for about 10 or 15 minutes, but at first, you may only manage a minute or two. It doesn’t really matter, any amount of time will do but keep trying it every day or as often as possible and it will become easier. It’s not an exact science. Meditating like this will help your body to get out of its ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic state into the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic state. This will help to calm your mind down. It has been a gamechanger for me.
There are lots of resources to help with meditation. For example, you could try an app like Headspace or Calm – find one that you like. I also recommend Emily Fletcher’s book, ‘Stress Less, Accomplish More’. If you struggle with chronic pain as well, there’s an app called Curable, which is really good and which teaches some meditation exercises as part of its pain relief programme.
4. Neuro Physiotherapist
If you’ve experienced dizziness or balance problems since your concussion, then it’s worth seeking out a Neuro Physiotherapist to help with this, probably via a referral from your GP or neurologist. Or you could try a balance specialist at the hospital or a physiotherapist or osteopath. It’s helpful if the health professional already has experience of working with people with concussion or mild brain injury, so do ask, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. I found that once my balance and dizziness issues were addressed, it improved my functioning in a number of areas, including reading, writing, looking at a computer screen, watching TV and films and movement. I had treatment from a neurophysiotherapist for BPPV which required the Epley Manoeuvre, where you are moved from lying on a flat surface in a certain way to dislodge crystals in the ears which have become misplaced. I was also given exercises such as gaze stabilisation exercises and having to stand on one leg and then the other for a certain amount of time.
At home, I sometimes use a balance board which you can purchase easily on the Internet. And if I go out for a walk in the countryside, I challenge myself to walk along logs and things like that. My three very active children, aged 7, 10 and 12, have kept me on my toes and I’ve been inspired by them and motivated to keep up with them. Two years ago, I was able to ride a bike again after almost two years of being unable to, and last summer we had a go at the junior Go Ape treetop challenge which terrified me but was a great confidence booster as I was able to do most of the course.
I’ve found exercise to be essential for my recovery and have built up gradually from walking not very far to a few runs up and down my garden a few months after my accident to swimming 20 lengths, regular cycle rides and more recently a 10-mile walk for the brain injury charity Headway Suffolk. I never thought I’d be able to do any of this four years ago. There are times when I really don’t feel up to exercising because I feel too exhausted, but usually, when I do exercise, I feel so much better, have more energy and feel more alive.
With exercise after a concussion, you need to build up gradually. It’s best to work with a physiotherapist or osteopath who can help plan a programme for you where you can gradually build up over time and increase your exercise tolerance. Whereas in the past, patients with concussion were advised mainly just to rest, now there is evidence that starting exercise early on in the recovery journey - less than a week after injury even - can help you heal more quickly. Google the ‘Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test’ to learn more about a concussion protocol commonly used in North America that helps people increase their exercise tolerance with graded exercise according to their symptom threshold. Among other things, exercise increases blood flow to the brain and releases endorphins or happy chemicals that will help you feel better and also aid recovery. As you can do more, find an exercise programme you like and that is quite gentle initially – either online or on Youtube or at a local class or your local gym.
I hope that this post has given you some steps that you can take to make some changes in your life to help you recover from your concussion or mild brain injury. You are not stuck where you are neither will you never get better, though it may seem like that sometimes. I know that feeling well, I still feel it sometimes. Our brains are amazing, they can and do improve and heal after injury, and with self-belief, self-care, some lifestyle changes and rehabilitation, it is possible to make giant leaps forwards towards a better quality of life after injury.
What's your number 1 piece of advice for someone who has sustained a brain injury? Leave a comment below.
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