Concussions, Balance, and the Equestrian Advantage
Concussions are a hot topic in professional football, but it’s something that horse lovers have been familiar with for years. A 2014 paper in published in the Sports Health medical journal showed that almost 50% of competitive riders will have experienced a concussion during their life while riding. Surveys have also shown that helmet usage amongst equestrians is extremely low with estimates ranging from 9%-25% of riders opting to ride without head protection.
The sudden deaths of high profile professional football players have made the complications of head trauma a hot button topic in sports and medicine. Concussions are considered a mild traumatic brain injury, but the truth is that a brain injury of any sort is anything BUT mild.
While most people will recover from the effects of a concussion within 7-10 days, approximately 15% of patients will experience symptoms beyond 30 days. When these concussive symptoms persist, the patient will likely receive a diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome or PCS. The symptoms of PCS include:
- Headache and migraine
- Vertigo or loss of balance
- Brain fog/difficulty with concentration
- Memory dysfunction
- Dysautonomia and fatigue
Pro-Riding and Pro-Brains. Not Mutually Exclusive
There are risks to all sports, and as an athlete you have come to accept those risks as part of the game. Additionally, if you have been involved with riding for a while, it’s easy to accept head injuries as an inevitable part of the sport, and the truth is that most people will recover in a week or two.
It’s a common thread with sports doctors to say that sports like riding are too risky for the developing brain. The truth is that concussions shouldn’t be something that scares you from playing your sport. Getting into sports like riding are the most effective ways for people to stay active and fit throughout your life.
I try to teach my riders 2 important concepts:
- If you get an injury, make it an injury of performance. Take the right steps to prevent injuries of negligence or careless behavior like not wearing a helmet.
- Know what to do after a head injury so that you can ensure maximum brain health and recovery.
Taking Care of the Concussed Brain – Performance Over Pathology
When talking about the long-term health consequences of head injury, it’s best NOT to get your stance from places like Will Smith’s recent film, Concussion. The brain illnesses discussed in that movie are pretty rare, and apply to very specific types of athletes.
However, that doesn’t mean that concussion is free of long-term consequences. Studies of athletes with a history of concussion have shown slightly slower cognition and reaction time 30 years later, even if there are no symptoms of head injury. Studies of previous football players have shown that athletes with a history of concussion are more likely to have back and leg injuries after retirement because of the way concussions affect control of your own joints.
Here’s where getting the right treatment after concussion can make all the difference in the world for an equestrian athlete. While most athletes aren’t overly concerned about something abstract like brain health, athletes are VERY interested in anything that can affect their performance on the field or rink.
The Equestrian Advantage
While equestrians are at a higher risk of head injury than most sports, the unique features of equestrian sports may help confer protection from some of the chronic problems associated with concussion.
From a neuroscience perspective, horseback riding requires a tremendous amount of work from the parts of your brain that control balance. Your sense of balance is made up of a delicate interplay between your inner ear (vestibular system), eyes (ocular), and joints (proprioception). Your brain takes information from these 3 systems and paints the image in your mind of where you are in space.
When you ride a horse, your body is constantly bobbing in a way that far exceeds the normal force of walking. Your brain has a magnificent system in place to help keep your vision in focus even though your head is moving all over the place. If this system gets corrupted, then really simple movement makes us feel off balance or dizzy. In other cases, this system also affects our emotional control and cause headaches.
The brain, like any other part of the body gets stronger and adapts the more that you use it and challenge it. Between simple riding, jumping, and dressage, equestrian athletes have to challenge their vestibular system more than almost all people, including many athletes. That means that many equestrians are likely to have a stronger sense of balance than most people, and research is actually starting to demonstrate that1. The effects that horseback riding has on balance or so strong that they are even being suggested for the treatment of balance problems in the elderly2 and in stroke patients3.
No Symptoms ≠ No Problems In Concussion Patients
So why is that important for a concussion? Most people associate concussion with your ability to think, but concussions actually have the strongest and most immediate impact on this balance system. When people suffer with concussions, you’ll often see that their ability to stand still and walk is affected even if they don’t have any cognitive symptoms at all. The brain hates when the balance system is broken. Overtime, as balance issues fail to get fixed, it spills over into problems leading to vision disturbances, headaches, and brain fog.
One of the things that I notice in my experience with equestrian patients is that many won’t show signs of head injury in their normal daily activities, due to their strong sense of balance. When your body feels like it has a good sense of balance, some of the cognitive and pain symptoms from a concussion don’t impact you quite as badly. This is a great thing in that a head injury won’t cause an obvious deficiency in your quality of life.
However, many times this is due to a compensation strategy by the brain. When you suffer a concussion, the parts of the brain that control the eyes, cognition, balance, and movement become compromised. When the brain suffers damage to one area, then other areas of the brain will start to work harder to perform the duties of the damaged region. This is driven by a concept called neuroplasticity. This is what allows blind people to have a heightened sense of hearing, or deaf people to have a more focused visual sense.
As a rider, a concussion may damage the regions of the brain that control neck and eye movements, which can be detrimental to your balance. However, your balance system from the inner ear is so strong that it can take over the task of keeping you upright without much of a hitch. Even though you feel good and your balance seems strong, there’s only so long that the brain can manage these compensation strategies before it starts to fail.
Compensated Performance = Suboptimal Performance
So now we’re going to bring it all back together.
When you suffer a concussion and parts of this comprehensive balance system breaks, many equestrians are fortunate enough to bounce back without prolonged symptomatic consequences because of a well-trained balance system in the brain.
The problem is that our brain is designed to work with contributions from all of our sensory systems. If we partially lose a system like proprioception from the joints and the inner ear system works overtime, then we will gradually lose more and more function from the joint position system. It won’t affect us immediately, but it may start to show up as back pain and knee injuries later on in life. If we lose some of our visual sense, then things like double vision or blurry vision can become long-term consequences.
You can even perform simple tests to see if some of your balance systems are not working well. Something as simple as standing with your eyes closed vs standing with your eyes open helps to see if your inner ear and joint position sense are working. If you start having difficulty concentrating while reading, your ocular system may be compromised.
The good news is that the same plasticity that helps us compensate is what allows us to develop strategies to rehabilitate the brain when we know which system is compromised. A thorough structura and neurological exam can help ensure that your brain does not just survive after a concussion, but to get it back to thriving again.
- Kim SH, Lee C, Lee I. Comparison between the effects of horseback riding exercise and trunk stability exercise on the balance of normal adults. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2014 Sep; 26(9): 1325-1327
- Kang K. Effects of mechanical horseback riding on the balance ability of the elderly. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2015 Aug; 27(8): 2499-2500
- Kang K. Effects of horseback riding simulator exercise on postural balance of chronic stroke patients. Journal of Phhysical Therapy Science. 2013 Sep; 25(9): 1169-1172.