Sending kids back to school rather than isolating and resting may be a better way to help them recover faster from a concussion, a new study finds.
The study, published in JAMA Network Open on Friday, finds that an earlier return to school was associated with better outcomes for some children.
The study looked at data from 1,630 children ages 5 to 18 who went to nine different emergency rooms across Canada. The study found that for kids ages 8 to 18 who were recovering from a concussion, an early return to school, in two days or fewer, was associated with children experiencing fewer symptoms 14 days after their injury. That was not the case in children ages 5 to 7.
Patients who followed recommendations for a slower return to activity in the study, including being restricted from school and their electronics, took longer to recover and had more symptoms at 10 days post-injury on average than those that did not follow these steps.
Prolonged restrictions after a concussion is thought to increase a child’s risk of depression and anxiety, earlier studies have shown. The researchers believe that socialization, reduced stress from not missing too much school, and returning to a normal sleep and school schedule may play a role in helping kids recover faster. Light to moderate physical activity may also help a child recover faster.
Dr. Chris Vaughan, an author of study, said that about a decade ago doctors encouraged parents to have their kids rest and limit their brain activity to help them heal for a longer period of time.
“We didn’t have good data for that. But it seemed like the thing to do because we were helping kids avoid activities that were triggering symptoms, and so we’re trying to do our best to manage symptoms and that became the sort of standard for treatment,” said Vaughan, a neuropsychologist at Children’s National Hospital.
In the last five or six years, though, there has been a shift, Vaughan said, and the thinking is that after the first day or two of rest, some activity is good for recovery.
“We continue to need to take concussions very seriously,” Vaughan said.
In the past, “we were doing what a lot of people refer to as cocoon therapy, where you essentially put your child in a dark room and try and take away the stimulation and just have them rest. But what we learned is that shutting kids down to that extent actually slowed recovery from concussion,” said Dr. Susannah Briskin, a sports medicine doctor at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, who did not work on this study.
The pendulum has swung back to where doctors are trying to get kids to stay engaged as much as possible, and get them back to school sooner.
“I tell families the most important thing is to avoid any activities where the child could have their head struck again while they’re recovering, but it is important to get moving and not just sit around,” Briskin said.
The study, she says, supplements what some doctors are already doing, but “this was probably the earliest return that we’ve seen be helpful.” Often, Briskin said, kids are out of school about a week with a concussion.
“Based on this study that would actually be detrimental to their recovery,” Briskin said.
Most kids with a concussion will feel better within a couple of weeks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but for some symptoms can last for a month or longer.
Just because they have some symptoms doesn’t mean they have to stay isolated, doctors said, but children may need accommodations. Children are often sensitive to light and noise after a concussion, thinking and concentrating can make kids feel worse, Briskin said.
“We really try to ease the burden by having kids take breaks from classes if they need to step out. We have individuals wear sunglasses if they’re having a lot of light sensitivity. If they’re having a lot of noise sensitivity, we try and avoid loud environments, such as music class, or even the lunch room or a loud assembly,” Briskin said.
In the study, the link between an early return to school and a lower number of problem symptoms was stronger in those who reported having a higher number of symptoms at first. Typical symptoms include feeling dizzy, having a headache and feeling nauseated.
Most guidance recommends people who get a concussion get a day or two of physical and mental rest and then gradually return to regular activities with some accommodations and support.
Dr. Britt Marcussen, a sports medicine physician who works with teams at the University of Iowa and who did not work on the study, said prior to this study, there’s little data to back up how to handle when students should go back to school post-concussion. Marcussen said this is one of the first papers to show that kids getting back to the classroom earlier seem to have fewer symptoms at 14 days out.
“Really this is the first paper that I’ve seen that says that early reintegration into school activities and cognitive activities may have some beneficial effect,” Marcussen said.
it is hard to know why it would be different for younger children, as the study suggested; Marcussen said it may be that the littlest kids are at a different developmental period, or just that younger children aren’t as clear about describing their symptoms. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests doctors use a check list to ask kids about their symptoms and their severity.
“It may be just it’s harder for them to fill out the checklists and to identify how they’re feeling,” Marcussen said.
Every individual may be a little different, and not everyone who has a concussion should be back at school within two days, Vaughan said.
But generally, there are things people can do to help children, or anyone for that matter, recover from a concussion: First, people need to be protected from re-injury or activities that could do their head further harm. Vaughan said people should get good quality sleep at night, hydration and nutrition; they should even get a little bit of exercise, like going for a walk.
“Keeping a kid or student in their normal routine, as best we can, and trying to get them back into the normal routine as soon as their symptoms allow, seems to fit that model where healthy lifestyle factors really seem to support the brain’s efforts to recover and get better,” Vaughan said. “Finding the balance is really important.”