When a young person suffers a concussion, nerve endings become injured and chemicals are released that throw the brain out of balance. Following a concussion, most of the brain’s energy is committed to restoring those broken connections and stabilizing chemical imbalances. So taxing it in any way mentally—by reading, attempting school work, playing video games or attempting any kind of analytical thinking—can cause symptoms to return or worsen.
“I often describe a concussion as not an event, but a process,” says Jeffrey Mjaanes, M.D., Sports Medicine Physician at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush University Medical Center, and Director of the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic at Rush. “During this process, the brain is basically resetting itself [and] it's getting back to its normal state of being. That's why it's so important during that time to rest and give your brain that chance to heal.”
Nick Kalck, a 13-year-old patient of Dr. Mjaanes, knows firsthand how important mental rest is. After suffering a concussion in baseball, Nick spent a few days at home; then he tried going back to school. “Nick tried to get back to school, and it was a lot of what we call mental or cognitive overload,” Dr. Mjaanes recalls.
“I had a test the first day and it made my vision even worse,” Nick shares. “It was really bad. I felt lightheaded, real dizzy, had to go to the nurse and went home that day, and then stayed home the rest of the week, actually.”
All told, Nick was home from school for more than a month, but not all teens will experience such a lengthy recovery. That’s because every recovery varies on the severity of the concussion and the athlete’s response to the injury. Treatment recommendations should come from a doctor or healthcare professional and should be customized to each individual.Nick’s mom, Lisa, admits that before Nick’s concussion, she did not understand the need for mental rest and urges parents to follow instructions regarding concussion recovery. “Parents need to realize the importance of recovery and not cutting corners,” she says. “What a doctor states for a child to do, both from a physical aspect and from the school and the educational side, is important to the overall recovery time period that your child's going through.”