BLOG: Meditate your way to concussion recovery
As a scientist, I evaluate the impact of behavioral interventions on stress and the brain. And as a long-time yoga instructor, I have a strong personal connection to the practices of yoga, mindfulness and meditation.
Yoga has been proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, fatigue and pain, so it made intuitive sense to me that it might be beneficial for patients recovering from mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI, or concussion), who experience many of the same symptoms. Additionally, the brain regions typically affected by mTBI (eg, frontal, parietal and white matter tracks) overlap markedly with the brain regions that are bolstered by mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
So, along with my colleagues at the University of Connecticut, I conducted a meta-analysis of studies exploring the role that yoga, mindfulness and meditation can play in patients with mTBI. We evaluated a wide range of studies in populations that included adolescents, veterans and athletes. All were struggling with chronic mTBI symptoms. In most cases, the participants in the studies were novices with no previous yoga or meditation experience. In all, 20 studies involving 539 participants met our inclusion/exclusion criteria.
In analyzing the results of these studies, we found that yoga, meditation or other mindfulness-based interventions resulted in significant improvement of symptoms compared with controls, with improvements seen in mental health, physical health, cognitive performance and quality of life.
Traumatic brain injuries are complex. As we often say, “If you’ve seen one concussion, you’ve seen one concussion.” However, clusters of symptoms that form feedback loops are very common. For example, physiologic pain after a brain injury may contribute to disordered sleep and anxiety, which can then exacerbate the physical symptoms in a continuous feedback cycle. Yoga and mindfulness can interrupt those feedback loops by acting on both the emotional processes (stress, anxiety, depression) and physiological mechanisms. For example, yoga has been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that helps heal neurons in the brain. It also activates the vagus nerve, which regulates internal organ functions and vasomotor activity, and affects immune, inflammatory and other pathways. Taken together, these actions can prime the body and brain for healing.
Yoga promotes awareness of the body that is essential for proper pacing and individualized recovery. Another advantage of yoga is that it targets multiple systems, allowing the practitioner to work on physiological (breath, balance) and cognitive (focus) processes at the same time, which is exactly what is needed in multi-symptom post-concussion syndrome. Mindfulness techniques certainly don’t replace neurorehabilitation or physical therapy, but when dealing with a complex injury, they can enhance the benefits of other treatments and support healthy recovery.
Not everyone who sees mTBI patients will be well-versed in mindfulness and yoga. Fortunately, there are plenty of accessible resources for patients to explore. Remember, whatever the individual will do regularly is the best practice for them. Try these mindfulness resources:
- LoveYourBrain.com — yoga and mindfulness specifically for TBI patients and caregivers.
- Trauma-informed yoga, a practice that focuses on creating feelings of safety and choice.
- Smart phone meditation apps such as Ten Percent Happier (my personal favorite), Headspace, Buddhify or Insight Timer.
- Muse brain-sensing headband, a gamified neurofeedback tool that connects to a smart phone to measures brainwaves as you meditate.
- Acabchuk RL, et al. Appl Psychol Health Well Being. 2020;doi:10.1111/aphw.12244.
For more information:
Rebecca Acabchuk, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Collaboration on Heath, Intervention and Policy. Her doctoral research was in physiology and neurobiology. As a distance runner and former NCAA Division 1 gymnast, she has always been interested in peak performance and injury recovery. Acabchuk has taught yoga for 17 years. She also practices and teaches meditation and mindfulness techniques.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association unless otherwise noted. This blog is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for the professional medical advice of a physician. NORA does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, physicians, products or procedures. For more on our website and online content, click here.