26 Jan, 17 | by EBM
By Dr. Geoffrey Modest
A large Canadian study looked at outcomes in kids according to whether there was strict rest versus different levels of physical activity in the week after a concussion (see doi:10.1001/jama.2016.17396 ).
Details at initial exam:
- 2413 participants aged 5 to 18 with acute concussion completed the questionnaires in the emergency room, at day 7, and at day 28 post-injury. The researchers assessed persistent postconcussive symptoms (PPCS, defined as at least 3 new or worsening individual symptoms vs preconcussion status) to see how that varied according to the amount of physical activity begun within 7 days of the ED visit.
- Mean age 11.8 years, 39% female, arrived at ED a median of 8.7 hours after injury, 24% lost consciousness (11% >3 minutes), 2% had seizure, 8% had prior concussions lasting more than a week.
- 49% appeared dazed and confused, 41% answered questions slowly, 14% repeated the questions, 21% were forgetful.
- Parental report of headache in 87%, nausea in 59%, balance problem in 44%, dizziness in 70%, drowsiness 73%, increased sleeping 35%, sensitivity to light or noise 37%, irritability 27%, sadness 40%, seemed mentally foggy 40%, increased fatigue 75%, poor concentration 37%, acts more emotional 40%
- 1677 (69.5%) participated in early physical activity, 736 (30.5%) had no physical activity:
- Light aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, swimming, or stationary cycling) in 795 (32.9%)
- Sport-specific exercise (e.g. running drills in soccer or skating drills in ice hockey) in 214 (8.9%)
- Noncontact drills (e.g. complex passing drills) in 143 (5.9%)
- Full contact practice (e.g. normal training activities) in 106 (4.4%)
- Full competition (e.g. normal game play) in 419 (17.4%)
- PPCS at 28 days occurred in 733 people (30.4%)
- The incidence of PPCS at 7:
- Those who engaged in early physical activity: 523 (31.3%) were symptom-free and 803 (48%) had at least three persistent or worsening postconcussive symptoms.
- Those not engaging in physical activity: 584 (79.5%) had at least three persistent or worsening postconcussive symptoms
- The incidence of PPCS at 28 days, by propensity score matching:
- Early physical activity: 28.7% versus 40.1% for no physical activity
- Among those symptomatic at day 7, the incidence of PPCS:
- Light aerobic activity: absolute risk benefit of 6.5% over no activity
- Moderate activity: absolute risk benefit 14.3% over no activity
- Full contact activity: absolute risk benefit 16.8% over no activity
- Pediatric concussion guidelines uniformly recommend an initial period of cognitive as well as physical rest after a concussion. These recommendations include modification of school attendance and mental activities as well as avoidance of any physical activity until postconcussive symptoms have returned to baseline, and then a gradual resumption of activities. However, there is no actual evidence to support these recommendations: they reflect a concern for preventing harm.
- It is, however, very clear from the literature, that re-injury and recurrent concussions are deleterious.
- This study, though quite large, is an observational study. They did propensity score matching as a means to mathematically control for differences between the different groups of activity level, in an attempt to decrease the inherent bias in an observational study (by mathematically adjusting the groups for likely relevant variables). It was notable that of the 20 items that they asked parents initially (e.g. headache, balance problem, drowsiness, etc., as noted above), there really was not much difference between the groups that performed physical activity and those that did not. However, this study still does not rise to the same evidence quality as a randomized controlled trial (i.e., mathematically modeling is just not the same…). A further caveat is that they did not look at cognitive rest, and it is conceivable that those who did not do any physical activity had much more cognitive activity, and it was the cognitive activity actually caused an increase in PPCS (not so likely, but possible). Also, the cutpoint of beginning exercise within the first 7 days of injury is arbitrary. It would be useful to see data on when exercise was started, perhaps over the first 3 weeks post-concussion and stratified by the initial concussion scores, to see what was the optimal timing or degree of exercise postconcussion
- It was also impressive that there was an apparent dose-response curve: those that did more activity seemed to benefit the most
- There really are an array of reasons that might support the conclusions of the study: for some children having to avoid all activity creates significant dysphoria (being the parent of two kids who had concussions, I can attest that not participating in sports created a lot of unhappiness) which can account for some of the psychological symptoms such as fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, etc. As a contrary issue, it is quite clear in the literature that physical activity is important for skeletal health, cardiorespiratory fitness, improvement in symptoms of depression, anxiety, self-esteem, cognitive performance, and academic achievement. In addition, exercise may well lead to improved cerebral blood flow and promote neuro-plasticity,
- The study is very important in challenging a long-held, though not rigorously demonstrated, view about dealing with injury, in this case concussion. Similarly, for a long time, we were all advised to limit any activity at all for patients with low back pain, for a minimum of two weeks. That also seemed prudent at the time, but turned out to be the antithesis of what we should have been doing. And in these cases, I think this conception that rest is the right prescription really undercuts the power of exercise in preserving and restoring health.
So, based on the study as well as some others, it seems to make sense to have a gradual resumption of physical activity as soon as tolerated after an acute concussion, but avoiding activities that might risk re-injury, given how much better kids did who resumed exercise within a week after a concussion. However, it certainly makes sense to have a real randomized controlled trial to assess the optimal degree of physical activity and its timing after concussion, as well as specific characteristics of the concussion which might dictate different exercise programs. And, also to look at the effect of cognitive rest (which, i think, may be nearly impossible in our technological era, given the intense cognitive stimulation of smartphones, electronic devices, etc.)
For prior blogs: http://blogs.bmj.com/ebm/2015/02/03/primary-care-corner-with-geoffrey-modest-md-concussion-a-less-aggressive-approach/ for another study suggesting more rapid introduction of physical activity; or http://blogs.bmj.com/ebm/2014/09/09/primary-care-corner-with-geoffrey-modest-md-need-for-safe-sustainable-sports/ for a study looking at the time-course of postconcussive symptoms in kids seen in the Boston children’s hospital ED