Traumatic brain injuries are more common than most people realize. They have numerous primary causes: car crashes, slips and falls, interpersonal violence and war, sports activities, workplace accidents and more. They’re exacerbated by numerous other factors, many of which we don’t fully understand or appreciate.
Every traumatic brain injury is different, as is every recovery period. It’s difficult to generalize about dissimilar cases. That said, John Gorecki MD finds evidence that suggests that there are certain actions traumatic brain injury patients — and their caregivers, if necessary and appropriate — can take to speed and smooth the recovery period, and improve overall quality of life on a sustainable basis.
One such action: getting up and moving around. (Okay, that’s technically two actions.) Traumatic brain injury patients that ramp up and sustain physical activity as conditions allow tend to recover more quickly than patients who, though capable of light, moderate or even heavy exercise, choose to remain sedentary. Here’s a quick look at why we think activity is good for traumatic brain injury patients and what caregivers can do to encourage swift recoveries.
Why Is Physical Activity Good for TBI Recovery?
It has long been assumed that patients who’ve recently suffered head trauma need to rest and lay low. Overstimulation, this old line of thinking went, could interrupt the long process of rebuilding neural connections and repairing damaged brain tissue.
A recent NPR points to emerging evidence that bed rest is actually counterproductive, or at least not overly helpful, for patients recovering from traumatic brain injuries. Physically active patients tend to progress more quickly toward their prior baseline than sedentary patients with comparable injuries.
In a 600-patient study, scientists separated TBI patients into two cohorts. One cohort was physically active, with some patients getting out of bed as early as their first day in the hospital. The other followed a more traditional recovery program. Evidence gathered from regular progress assessments indicated increased blood flow to the injured areas of active patients’ brains, clearly demonstrating the benefits of physical activity. Patients also indicated that they felt better — both physically and emotionally — after getting up and moving about.
At Patients’ Own Pace
Investigators faced many logistical challenges during the course of this study. In particular, many TBI patients’ substantial problems with cognition and mobility made it difficult to pursue aggressive programs of physical activity, especially early in the recovery period. Patients who struggle to get out of bed on their own or control their limbs find it difficult to “exercise” in any traditional sense. For patients recovering from serious TBIs, and the family members responsible for directing their care, it’s critical to advocate for physical therapy enrollment as early as possible — even if it’s not brought up by the care team. And it’s just as important to recognize that mobility and communicative ability may return slowly.
More Tips to Speed TBI Recovery
Physical exercise isn’t a cure-all for TBI patients, and it’s also far from the only recovery tactic recommended by neurologists. Other tips and tactics to speed TBI recovery include:
- Following Diets Rich in Protein and Beneficial Fats. Good nutrition is critically important for recovering TBI patients. In particular, diets rich in omega fatty acids and brain-building proteins promote faster neurological recovery. They’re also great complements to active lifestyles.
- Eating Regular, Small Meals. It’s common for TBI patients, particularly early in the recovery process, to fall out of eating rhythm. To ensure that they’re eating the right amount at the right time, patients or care providers should set aside small, pre-prepared meals for consumption at regular intervals — every 3 to 4 hours, ideally — and set alarms or pair meals with other predictable activities to stay on schedule.
- Avoiding High-Impact Activity. Some exercise is good for recovering TBI patients, but too much, too soon is likely counterproductive. Patients should avoid activities that can aggravate their existing injuries or cause new ones.
Limits to Recovery
Recovering from a traumatic brain injury is a frustrating, often lengthy process that depends heavily on the severity and morbidity of the initial injury. While the patient’s attitudes and actions play a critical role in the progression and ultimate outcome of his or her recovery, the blunt truth is that recovery is very often destined to be incomplete or unsatisfying, both for the patient and his or her family. It’s important to launch into the rehabilitation process with open-minded optimism — and, by the same token, to be realistic about the prospects.