COVID-19 Lockdowns Potentially Disruptive to Concussion Recovery

Concussions can be one of the most frustrating and devastating injuries for an athlete – often preventing them from participating in their sport for an uncertain amount of time and potential for leaving permanent damage. A concussion, according to the United Brain Association, is “a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in which the brain is injured by an impact or a sudden change in movement.” Over the last decade, there have been remarkable strides in research of concussions, specifically in athletes suffering from concussions. One of the most significant aspects of concussion recovery has proven to be keeping the injured athletes engaged in various forms of physical activity. 

While it may initially seem that lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions may have been beneficial for athletes recovering from concussions, the inability to receive treatment and participate in controlled exercise at concussion clinics could prove to be detrimental to the future health of any athletes who suffered from a concussion just before and at the beginning of the pandemic. According to the Mid Atlantic Concussion Alliance in April 2020, maintaining a daily schedule and participating in exercise routines consistent with rehabilitation guidelines were some of the top suggestions for caring for a concussion during lockdown. Although at home concussion treatments did not have the same benefits of a clinic that specializes in concussions, this consistency and light exercise is essential for a smooth recovery. 

Too much rest after a concussion could be more harmful rather than beneficial. Photo Credit: SocietyPage.

Controlled exercise has been proven to be more beneficial for athletes during the recovery process. Originally, it was believed that rest was the best way for athletes to recover from head trauma, however, relying strictly on rest has shown to be detrimental to the athletes in both a physical and mental aspect. According to research conducted by specialists at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine, “strict rest beyond 2 days prolonged symptomatic recovery from concussion, consistent with the observation that removing athletes from regular physical activity is detrimental to their mental health.” 

Evidently, just like everything else, proper concussion recovery for athletes came to an abrupt halt in March 2020. While the pandemic saw fewer athletes suffering from concussion due to the inability to participate in sports, it also prevented athletes from continuing any essential treatments that they may have been engaged in prior to the pandemic. This disruption in concussion treatment was dangerous for those who were making progress within their treatment routines. 

Due to the high-volume of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and the lockdown requirements implemented worldwide, patients suffering from non-urgent health conditions and injuries were unable to seek immediate healthcare. Unfortunately for most, concussions constituted such non-urgent injuries. If concussion treatments are delayed, the athlete will likely become more susceptible to worsening symptoms and will become less likely to recover had they been treated sooner. 

Controlled exercise such as jogging on a treadmill under medical supervision has proven to be effective in concussion recovery. Photo credit: Forever Fit Science.

Given the circumstances surrounding the urgency of treatment for concussions and the inability to access such treatment during the pandemic, it’s reasonable to assume that any athletes whose concussion treatments were significantly postponed due to the pandemic are at greater risk for suffering a subsequent concussion upon their return to full participation in their sports. Unfortunately, since we are still in the pandemic phase, adequate research has not yet been conducted to determine the exact impact lockdown and limited medical access has had on concussion recovery rates. 

Although we are still waiting on research to be conducted to understand the full extent that the pandemic has had on concussion recovery, it’s likely that the inability to access medical treatment and the prolonged periods of rest caused by the pandemic restrictions will prove to be quite harmful to athletes. Until such research is conducted, there will remain the question of liability – will the liability fall on the athlete for not participating in at home concussion treatment? Or will the athlete’s organization be liable for not being able to implement such treatment? At the same time, the negative impact that the pandemic will likely have on concussion treatments will only reinforce the need for the current policies and continue to spur further progress.

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