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How to Maximize MTBI Recovery and Brain Health

Originally published on Acupuncture Clinic of Boulder, January 10, 2017

by: Melissa Hundley Wolak, MS, CCC-SLP 

As the brain and nervous system heal from a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI), concussion or trauma, compensatory strategies and lifestyle modifications are indispensable in supporting the recovery process. An increased amount of physical, cognitive and emotional energy will be utilized to heal, handle pain or headaches and to complete everyday tasks. Spontaneous recovery will occur but the timeline can vary. The good news is that the brain is resilient and you can maximize the brain’s “neuroplasticity” – its ability to learn, form new brain cells and strengthen neural connections.

As a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) specializing in cognition and a transformational life coach, I treat symptoms and challenges resulting from MTBI or Post-Concussive Syndrome (PCS) in the areas of: memory, attention, word retrieval, problem solving, task completion, time management, reading, speaking, organization, social communication and executive functioning skills. During a private consultation with experienced professionals such as SLPs, we develop an individualized treatment protocol with more specific recommendations to facilitate recovery. In this article, I have listed basic recovery strategies that have been consistently effective for my clients for almost two decades.

  1. Prioritize rest and sleep to maximize the healing process, muscle repair and memory function. Normally, 7-9 hours each evening is optimal but after an MTBI or concussion more sleep may be necessary. Naps can also be beneficial. It is recommended to keep naps brief and scheduled earlier in the day (before 2 p.m.) to protect your nighttime sleep. If you are having challenges with sleep, consult with your trusted health care provider.
  2. Exercise and keep moving. Cardiovascular exercise is key for supporting your brain health and recovery. The brain needs the blood and oxygen generated via movement to heal damaged, “bruised” or sheared brain tissue. Low impact or moderate exercise is recommended and will vary depending on your fitness level prior to injury. You may start exercising for fifteen minutes (or less) and gradually increase the amount of time you can tolerate. If you are having difficulties, consider walking or exercising with a family member or friend. If you are experiencing dizziness, consult with your physician regarding treatment options (acupuncture, physical therapy or a vision consultation). Please know, after an injury is not the time to start a new high impact or strenuous exercise regime.
  3. Hydrate your brain tissue to support brain cell health and recovery, attention and cognitive function. Over the years, clients report that they will forget to drink during the day. Keep a water bottle with you. Sip water, tea or coconut water throughout the day and at meals. Limit the amount of caffeine, soft drinks and juice you consume.
  4. Maintain the healthiest diet possible with “whole” foods including vegetables, healthy fats, protein and fruits. After MTBI, skipping meals or craving carbohydrates and fruit are common which may cause blood sugar fluctuations, increase fatigue and/or pain, and cause weight gain. Consult with your physician or healthcare provider regarding nutrition and supplements that will support brain health, recovery and also decrease inflammation.
  5. Pace yourself and set time limits with challenging tasks but do not stop doing them completely. Setting a timer to allocate a specific amount of time to focus on a task will increase efficiency. Then, take breaks before you experience a headache or “shut down” due to fatigue or overwhelm.
  6. Use a planner or calendar system to help you track your appointments and prioritize responsibilities. A paper/pencil calendar system or checklist will assist in managing your time/energy and also support memory function. Try to keep your lists and daily goals in one place such as your planner or phone.
  7. Avoid or limit significant overstimulation and overwhelm. If you experience challenges with filtering bright light, the computer/TV screens, noise or fast movement, limit your time dealing with these types of stimulation. Helpful items to have easily accessible when you feel yourself become overwhelmed or fatigued are sunglasses, hats with brims, and attenuated ear filters or noise cancellation headphones. I also recommend watching news and more violent TV shows and movies be limited.
  8. Check-in and listen to your body. It sounds simple but after a trauma you may feel detached or less self-aware. Therefore, some clients have scheduled times during the day to check-in, to take three deep breaths and to determine what they need. The best advice is to rest when you are tired, eat when you are hungry, drink when you are thirsty and use the restroom throughout the day.
  9. Wear your helmet. As Erin Pass, L.Ac., Dipl. C.H., mentioned, protection is extremely important especially if you have a history of brain trauma or injury. Accidents can occur at any age, close to home or on “easy” terrain when skiing, skateboarding, biking, sledding or ice skating. Wearing a helmet can lessen the severity of injury and decrease your likelihood of Second Impact Syndrome or lasting symptoms.
  10. Establish your healthcare team. This may be a team of 1-2 providers or several. In Boulder, we are fortunate to have many health care professionals that specialize in the treatment of neurological function, MTBI and/or Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS). Insurance-wise, it can be beneficial to have a physician (physiatrist, neurologist, etc.) on your rehabilitation team.

Overall, be kind to yourself and be patient–healing takes time and energy. It is important to slow down, to ask for help and accept help from those who care about you and your recovery team.

If you have any questions regarding maximizing the brain’s healing process following MTBI or a concussion and supporting ongoing brain health, please contact Melissa Hundley Wolak, MS, CCC-SLP for more information. You can also subscribe to her newsletter or schedule a consultation below.

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