Concussion Recovery: 5 Steps to Returning to Sports 

Concussion recovery takes time, which means returning to sports must be a gradual process that’s done under close medical guidance.

Concussion Recovery: 5 Steps to Returning to Sports 

With some sports injuries, you can return to activity once pain and inflammation have disappeared and you’ve regained your strength and range of motion. Head injuries are different, however, and athletes who suffer a concussion should only return to sports activities under the expert supervision of a local physiatrist or physical medicine and rehabilitation physician.

Safely returning to sports following a concussion can take days, weeks or even months. Once you have the blessing of your doctor, the five steps below are commonly recommended for athletes in concussion recovery.

Step 1: Light Aerobic Exercise

Performing light aerobic exercises that increase the heart rate is the first step in concussion recovery. Athletes can prepare for returning to sports by walking, taking a light jog or riding an exercise bike for a short time.

Step 2: Moderate Sports Activity

As concussion symptoms begin to improve, athletes are encouraged to perform moderate physical activities. These may include brief periods of running or using a moderate-intensity stationary bike. Weightlifting can be added to the exercise routine, but lifting times and weights must be modified to accommodate the concussion.

Step 3: Heavier, Non-Contact Sports Activity

Once they are further along in the recovery period, athletes who’ve suffered a concussion can boost their activity levels by engaging in heavy non-contact sports. At this point, sprinting, running, using a high-intensity stationary bike or performing non-contact sport-specific drills is recommended.

Step 4: Full-Contact Sports Practice

The next step in concussion treatment for athletes is to return to full-contact practice. Participating in normal training helps get athletes ready for returning to sports but doesn’t have the added pressure and stress of competition.

Step 5: Return to Regular Sports Activity

If normal, full-contact practice and training activities are well-tolerated, athletes can take the final step in concussion recovery and return to their regular sports activities. This includes competition, if applicable, as the injury is considered fully healed.

Additional Safety Guidelines for Concussion Recovery

Athletes must be mindful of their concussion symptoms at all times during the recovery period. If symptoms worsen, it should be considered a sign to slow down and quit pushing so hard to get back to regular sports activities.

In addition, athletes should only move on to the next recovery step if their current level of activity causes no new symptoms. And if any symptoms return or new ones appear, the athlete should stop the activity and consult with an experienced physical medicine and rehabilitation physician. After getting more rest and approval from a physiatrist, activity can resume at the previous step in the concussion recovery process.

Robert Engelen, DO
Dr. Engelen served as a Lieutenant in the Navy and operated as the medical officer for Marines in North Carolina and for a deployment to Afghanistan. He has served as a team physician for a high school and a Division II Collegiate athletic sports team in Pittsburgh, and currently serves as the team physician for West Jordan High School.

Dr. Engelen has a special interest in fluoroscopic procedures, diagnostic ultrasound and ultrasound guided procedures, regenerative medicine, biomechanical analysis, and treatment of all sports and spine injuries. His unique practice focuses on non-surgical treatments.
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About Robert Engelen, DO

Dr. Engelen served as a Lieutenant in the Navy and operated as the medical officer for Marines in North Carolina and for a deployment to Afghanistan. He has served as a team physician for a high school and a Division II Collegiate athletic sports team in Pittsburgh, and currently serves as the team physician for West Jordan High School. Dr. Engelen has a special interest in fluoroscopic procedures, diagnostic ultrasound and ultrasound guided procedures, regenerative medicine, biomechanical analysis, and treatment of all sports and spine injuries. His unique practice focuses on non-surgical treatments.