Concussion: Evaluation and management

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The symptoms and signs after concussion are so variable and multidimensional that they make a generally applicable treatment hard to define.

Rest: Physical and cognitive

Treatment depends on the specifics of the injury, but there are common recommendations for the acute days after injury. Lacking hard data, the consensus among experts is that patients should undergo a period of physical and cognitive rest.13,14 Exactly what “rest” means and how long it should last are unknown, leading to a wide variation in its application.

Rest aids recovery but also may have adverse effects: fatigue, diurnal sleep disruption, reactive depression, anxiety, and physiologic deconditioning.15,16 Many guidelines recommend physical and cognitive rest until symptoms resolve,14 but this is likely too cautious. Even without a concussion, inactivity is associated with many of the nonspecific symptoms also associated with concussion. As recovery progresses, the somatic symptoms of concussion improve, while emotional symptoms worsen, likely in part due to prolonged rest.17

We recommend a period of rest lasting 3 to 5 days after injury, followed by a gradual resumption of both physical and cognitive activities as tolerated, remaining below the level at which symptoms are exacerbated.

Not surprisingly, many guidelines for returning to physical activity are focused on athletes. Yet the same principles apply to management of concussion in the general population who exercise: light physical activity (typically walking or stationary bicycling), followed by more vigorous aerobic activity, followed by some resistance activities. Mild aerobic exercise (to below the threshold of symptoms) may speed recovery from refractive postconcussion syndrome, even in those who did not exercise before the injury.18

Athletes require specific and strict instructions to avoid increased trauma to the head during the gradual increase of physical activities. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has published an algorithm for a gradual return to sport-specific training that is echoed in recent consensus statements on concussion.19 Once aerobic reconditioning produces no symptoms, then noncontact, sport-specific activities are begun, followed by contact activities. We have patients return to the clinic once they are symptom-free for repeat evaluation before clearing them for high-risk activities (eg, skiing, bicycling) or contact sports (eg, basketball, soccer, football, ice hockey).

Cognitive rest

While physical rest is fairly straightforward, cognitive rest is more challenging. The concept of cognitive rest is hard to define and even harder to enforce. Patients are often told to minimize any activities that require attention or concentration. This often includes, but is not limited to, avoiding reading, texting, playing video games, and using computers.13

In the modern world, full avoidance of these activities is difficult and can be profoundly socially isolating. Further, complete cognitive rest may be associated with symptoms of its own.15,16,20 Still, some reasonable limitation of cognitive activities, at least initially, is likely beneficial.21 For patients engaged in school or academic work, often the daily schedule needs to be adjusted and accommodations made to help them return to a full academic schedule and level of activity. It is reasonable to have patients return gradually to work or school rather than attempt to immediately return to their preinjury level.

With these interventions, most patients have full resolution of their symptoms and return to preinjury levels of performance.


Posttraumatic headache

Posttraumatic headache is the most common sequela of concussion.22 Surprisingly, it is more common after concussion than after moderate or severe traumatic brain injury.23 A prior history of headache, particularly migraine, is a known risk factor for development of posttraumatic headache.24

Posttraumatic headache is usually further defined by headache type using the International Classification of Headache Disorders criteria ( Migraine or probable migraine is the most common type of posttraumatic headache; tension headache is less common.25

Analgesics such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often used initially by patients to treat posttraumatic headache. One study found that 70% of patients used acetaminophen or an NSAID.26

Treating early with effective therapy is the most important tenet of posttraumatic headache treatment, since 80% of those who self-treat have incomplete relief, and almost all of them are using over-the-counter products.27 Overuse of over-the-counter abortive medications can lead to medication overuse headache, also known as rebound headache, thus complicating the treatment of posttraumatic headache.26

Earlier treatment with a preventive medication can often limit the need for and overuse of over-the-counter analgesics and can minimize the occurrence of subsequent medication overuse headache. However, in pediatric populations, nonpharmacologic interventions such as rest and sleep hygiene are typically used first, then medications after 4 to 6 weeks if this is ineffective.

A number of medications have been studied for prophylactic treatment of posttraumatic headache, including topiramate, amitriptyline, and divalproex sodium,28–30 but there is little compelling evidence for use of one over the other. If posttraumatic headache is migrainous, beta-blockers, calcium-channel blockers, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibtors, and gabapentin are other prophylactic medication options under the appropriate circumstances.27,31,32 In adults, we have clinically had success with nortriptyline 20 mg or gabapentin 300 mg at night as an initial prophylactic headache medication, increasing as tolerated or until pain is controlled, though there are no high-quality data to guide this decision.

The ideal prophylactic medication depends on headache type, patient tolerance, comorbidities, allergies, and medication sensitivities. Gabapentin, amitriptyline, and nortriptyline can produce sedation, which can help those suffering from sleep disturbance.

If a provider is not comfortable prescribing these medications or doesn’t prescribe them regularly, the patient should be referred to a concussion or headache specialist more familiar with their use.

In some patients, even some athletes, headache may be related to a cervical strain injury—whiplash—that should be treated with an NSAID (or acetaminophen), perhaps with a short course of a muscle relaxant in adults, and with physical therapy.32

Some patients have chronic headache despite oral medications.26 Therefore, alternatives to oral medications and complementary therapies should be considered. Especially for protracted cases requiring more complicated headache management or injectable treatments, patients should be referred to a pain clinic, headache specialist, or concussion specialist.

Next Article:

Understanding the bell-ringing of concussion

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