A small group of specialists recently convened for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's (UPMC) two-day concussion conference — and they suggested that the gold standard of concussion treatment might be anything but.
Presently, players in the National Football League (NFL) are prescribed "prolonged rest" after sustaining a concussion. But according to Dr. David Okonkwo, the executive vice chair for clinical operations and director of neurotrauma, scoliosis and spinal deformity at UPMC, this is "counterproductive." And it’s a finding that could be "paradigm shifting."
"People may underestimate the impact of this, but on a global basis, every single person who sustains a concussion is told prolonged rest," Okonkwo said. "Now, you have 37 of the best and brightest minds in the field saying, 'That's wrong' and, in fact, concussions are treatable and active treatments are superior to doing nothing."
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cited that the group's findings will be published within the next month or two, "as part of a broader effort to spread the word that exercise, not rest, may be the better strategy for recovering from a concussion."
When NFL players are prescribed rest, they're also "completely restricted from any physical activity," Dr. Javier Cardenas, a neurologist at the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center in Arizona, told the Post-Gazette. Going from a physically taxing profession to no activity at all, Cardenas said many players see this more as a form of punishment.
"They become depressed," he explained. "They become anxious. So allowing them to participate in physical activity — while keeping them out of harms' way, of course — is actually a rehabilitation method."
There's some skepticism surrounding UPMC's conference, thus their takeaways for a few reasons; one, UPMC has reportedly received funding from the NFL in the past. Not to mention that some of the specialists in attendance have connections to either the NFL or an individual sports team, the Post-Gazette reported. Members of the media were also prohibited from attending the conference.
Whether it's rest or exercise, one thing is clear: the high rate of concussions sustained by football players needs to be addressed, especially if it turns out that the protocol and resources experts and doctors have been adhering to is doing a disservice to players' recovery and healing process.
"This is not a one-size-fits-all injury," said director of the UPMC sports medicine concussion program Dr. Michael Collins. "There are different profiles and problems that we see. Now that we understand that and we have treatments that can actively treat those different profiles, we are very confident that progress can be made."