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What to Do When Concussion Symptoms Won’t Go Away

Concussion recovery can sometimes be a frustrating, confusing process. Just when you think you're on the mend, a persistent symptom will start nagging at you once again. If you suffered a serious blow to the head and experience symptoms weeks or months after the fact, you may have post-concussion syndrome (PCS). 

Despite the unsettling terminology, this is a fairly common condition—even among young athletes—and a vast majority of patients can expect a full recovery with treatment.

"Don't get too hung up on the term 'syndrome' because post-concussion syndrome is highly treatable and patients will recover,” says Colby Hansen, MD, associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at University of Utah Health. “Even if your symptoms aren't going away, there is still a path forward to feeling well and being well."

What Are the Symptoms?

If you are experiencing these symptoms beyond the normal course of recovery (a month or longer after a concussion), you may have PCS: 

  • Cognitive Impairments: Mental fogginess, attention difficulties, lack of focus, memory problems
  • Sleep Disorders: Irregular sleep patterns (too little or too much) and problems falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Mood/Behavioral Problems: Irritability, anxiety, and depression 
  • Physical Pain and Discomfort: Headaches, neck pain, dizziness, sensitivity to light and sounds, exercise intolerance 

Note: Some people with the following pre-existing conditions may be at a higher risk for PCS: depression, anxiety, mental health disorders, chronic headaches or migraines, and chronic pain.

What Are My Treatment Options?

Although it might seem unclear if you have PCS, it’s best to see your doctor to assess your symptoms and explore treatment options.

"It's important to get this addressed so you can avoid developing chronic issues later on,” Hansen says. “For example, addressing your neck pain could put a stop to chronic headaches." 

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may refer you to a specialist, such as a rehabilitation doctor, a neuropsychologist, or a neurologist. If your symptoms are impairing your basic daily activities, you may be referred to an occupational therapist, physical therapist, speech therapist, or psychotherapist.

As for medication, there is no single treatment for PCS. There are, however, a variety of medications that could be considered to treat individual symptoms. 

How Can I Speed Up Recovery?

The best way to combat persistent concussion symptoms is to embrace these three self-care practices: 

One of the best ways to boost your progress, Hansen says, is to get moving and start enjoying life again. For patients returning to risky activities, he advises following their prescribed treatment plans and not rushing the recovery process.

“Sometimes people get the false notion that going back to their daily activities will derail their recovery, but that could do more harm than good,” Hansen says. “If you're able to work, go to school, or play sports, get back into it. Just listen to your body and take a break when you feel you've reached your limit. Pacing yourself is critical.”

In addition to boosting your mental health, exercise improves blood flow in the brain and releases neurochemicals that benefit your cognitive function. Just remember listen to your body.

"It's good to be careful, but there needs to be a good balance between doing too much and being too overly cautious,” Hansen says. “Moderation is key, so use good common sense when you're exercising or playing team sports."

Take it Slow and Steady

The road to recovery after a concussion is different for everyone—and it isn’t always a linear path. You’re not alone with PCS, and you will get better with self-care and treatment. Visit the Brain Injury Association website for more information about nationwide resources and support groups.