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What are the risk factors for poor outcomes after a concussion?

When patients suffer a concussion, the vast majority of patients will have symptoms for 10 days or less. About 10-15% of concussed patients will develop persistent symptoms and be diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.

Thanks to an explosion in concussion research in the last 20 years, we know a lot more about these head injuries than we have in the past. While we don’t know the exact physical reasons why some people are more likely to suffer from post-concussion syndrome, we do know some specific risk factors for people developing persistent symptoms.

Here’s a short but important list of factors that may make a young athlete more susceptible to chronic concussion symptoms:

  1. Patients with a history of migraine headache
  2. Patients with a history bipolar or anxiety disorder
  3. Patients with a family history of bipolar or anxiety disorder
  4. Patients with a previous concussion

There’s a few interesting things to take away from this:

  • Having a history of migraine likely means that your nervous system will be more vulnerable to the headache and nausea experienced with concussion symptoms. It may also signal that you have a sensitivity in your neck to issues that may stimulate the headache process and can be worsened by head trauma.
  • The first is that mental health seems to be a major player in the future expression of post-concussive symptoms like headache and dizziness. It shows us the power that mental health can have on physical health problems.
  • There’s no association with the severity of the concussion or losing consciousness. While a more severe hit to the head or getting knocked out seem like they would predict worse recovery, the data suggests that it doesn’t play a significant role in the development of persistent symptoms.
  • A lot of people get their physical symptoms treated for post concussion symptoms by a variety of providers, but a lot of people ignore their psychological and cognitive treatments. Having someone that can help manage their anxiety appropriately and use cognitive behavioral interventions can help many patients benefit from their physical symptoms.

Don’t Forget: Health Is A 3 Legged Stool

It’s easy to think about health in terms of physical ailments, but your overall well being is dependent on physical, mental, and emotional health. There’s a reason why people with depression and anxiety have worse outcomes for every physical ailment that exists. If you have a poor mental and emotional outlook, your brain simply doesn’t mobilize it’s repairing and recuperative resources as effectively.

In the world of concussion we often talk about getting the right care for concussions linking it to cervical spine problems, vestibular problems, or brain problems. What we sometimes forget is that some of our susceptibility to illness is related to our belief in the fragility or resilience of our bodies. Let’s restore faith in the strength of our bodies and make ourselves more robust healing machines.

Why Concussions Hit Migraine Patients Harder

Migraines and Concussions

 

The vast majority of people who suffer concussive injuries will recover without any chronic symptoms. However, about 15% of people who suffer concussions will go on to have post-concussion syndrome, where they will experience headaches, dizziness, and cognitive problems beyond 30 days after an injury. These symptoms can be debilitating, and some people can experience the effects of these head injuries for years later.

A lot of research has been done to identify people who are at higher risk of developing post-concussion syndrome. The most significant risk factor for this is having multiple concussions, but that’s a rather obvious one. The more concussions you’re exposed to, the greater the opportunity to have chronic symptoms. However, research has pointed to one specific risk factor that seems to contribute heavily to post-concussion syndrome in the athletic population. That risk factor? A history of migraine headaches.

Migraines and Concussion: a terrible duet

Post-traumatic headache is one of the hallmark symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. These headaches look a lot like migraines because of the wide range of neurological symptoms that concussions can cause.

It’s no secret that concussions can cause terrible headaches in people, but many people don’t know that having a history of migraine headache is a risk factor for worse outcomes in post-concussion syndrome. ¹ ² ³

This is important for a couple of reasons:

  1. If you know someone with migraines is at a higher risk for post-concussion symptoms we can be better prepared to see appropriate specialists in the event of a concussion.
  2. We have a better understanding for why sports like girls’ soccer are more susceptible to concussive injuries and can be more prone to chronic post-concussion syndrome.
  3. Because understanding the common physiology in migraines and concussion can help us identify effective treatments for one of its most debilitating symptoms.

Migraines, Post-Concussion Syndrome, and the Neck

Treatment for headache symptoms in migraine and post-concussion syndrome are pretty similar. Amitriptyline, propanolol, and topirimate. These medications target receptors in the brain that can become overactive and underactive during a migraine attack.

Most research is focused on finding effective drugs to treat headaches, but this treatment philosophy ignores the fact that the headaches from a migraine or concussion can often stem from dysfunction of the cervical spine.

When the neck is compromised the muscles and nerves that surround the upper neck can become areas of concern for the headache patient. The muscles at the top of the neck transmit information to the brain about where the head is in space.  Studies have shown that these muscles can be tied to chronic headache symptoms. ¹ Some studies have even shown that cutting these muscles can lead to headache relief.¹

You can read more about these troublesome little muscles on a previous article I wrote here:

Is This Small Neck Muscle Driving You Mad?

 

The muscles in the deep part of the neck have been implicated in headache disorderrs

The muscles in the deep part of the neck have been implicated in headache disorderrs

 

Additionally, the nerves in the top of the neck are important transmitters of pain. The C1, C2, and C3 nerve roots in the neck are linked to the trigeminal cervical nucleus which is an important relay center for pain in the head. Branches off the C1 nerve like the suboccipital nerve have been targets for nerve blocks in migraine patients with good success.¹

 

The nerves in the upper neck play a major role in headache physiology

The nerves in the upper neck play a major role in headache physiology

 

These mechanisms are important because research has shown that whiplash and concussions can have a significant impact on these anatomical structures. ¹ ² ³

Concussions Worsen Cervical Spine Problems

So here’s the main issue. Many (but not all) migraine issues can be tied to the neck. More than 80% of the migraine patients that come into our office get a tremendous improvement in the frequency of their migraine attacks just by fixing biomechanical issues in the neck, and there is some research that supports it. ¹

When someone has a biomechanical issue in their neck, then a major blow to the head like a concussion can make these neck problems worse. Several studies are starting to show that there are some interesting similarities with what happens in a whiplash and what happens in a concussion. The fact is that the amount of force that it takes to cause a concussion FAR exceeds the amount of force it takes to create a mild whiplash injury.

Whiplash and Concussion

The force required to sustain a concussion far exceeds the forces necessary to cause a whiplash

Obviously not every force over 5 g’s causes a whiplash and not every force over 100 g’s causes a concussion. Otherwise we’d all be walking around with with severe neck injuries every time we got off a roller coaster. There are factors involved like neck strength, timing of muscle bracing, and previous injuries that affect our susceptibility to these forces.

My point is that if you have sustained a concussion, then the probability of you also suffering an injury to the neck is really really high.

If you were a migraine patient before the concussion and the migraine was stemming from your neck, then the odds of that neck injury becoming worse and making the healing process after a concussion is much higher for you than most others.

If you had a small biomechanical issue in your neck that was contributing to your migraine headache symptoms, then the force of a concussion is going to injure the ligaments and muscles that were already compromised! This is addition to the way that concussions knock out your vestibular and ocular systems which are also known contributors to headache physiology.

Addressing the Neck

So what does this mean for you?

  1. If you are an athlete and have a migraine headache problem, you should get your neck checked and rule out any biomechanical problems in the upper cervical spine. Fixing these issues will likely address your migraines, and may provide some protection from head contact.This is even more true for female athletes than male athletes. Women suffer from migraine headache issues at a much higher rate than men, and this can be a contributing factor to the increased rates of concussion we see in girls’ soccer.
  2. If you play contact sports, getting your neck stronger may provide protection from concussive injury. Again, this applies even more so to female athletes because women will tend to have smaller neck muscles than men. Weight training and specific neck exercises is a safe and easy way to possibly mitigate this risk.
  3. If you have a history of neck injury from whiplash and concussion, make sure you’re seeing someone with expertise in addressing the cervical spine. People with traumatic neck injuries may not respond well with vigorous treatment methods and may regress with too much force applied to injured tissue.

 

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