Post-Concussion Syndrome: Building Resilience with Biofeedback

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Young woman having peak performance training for cognitive changes from serious TBI taken in 2018.
Westborough, MA  May 20, 2018  Biofeedback has been the subject of my posts for a few years and I am excited to publish this paper on using the Heart Rate Variability (HRV) protocol together with EEG Neurofeedback to reduce the duration and severity of symptoms of post-concussion syndrome (PCS).  “Sometimes vague physical symptoms create an overwhelming emotional response that comes from the lingering resentment patients feel when seeing doctors who seem unable to understand their needs. Sometimes the outward appearance of lingering concussion may appear to be solely a psychiatric condition rather than someone who is recovering from a brain injury. This can leave a patient with feelings of embitterment and confusion.  Some physicians unfairly believe prolonged symptoms may be linked to ongoing litigation.” as posted in a concussion blog by Michael Sefton in 2015.
Biofeedback is not new nor is it still considered a novice, untested treatment.  There are scores of peer reviewed papers on both physiologic and neurofeedback for a variety of clinical syndrome including epilepsy, chronic pain, hypertension, alcoholism, ADHD, and concussion among others. The key for those suffering with the effects of concussion is early referral into treatment rather than referring as a last resort after three years of chronic suffering.  Happily I can report that only a tiny percentage of people who sustain a concussion have symptoms that last greater than 6 months.  Nevertheless, the number of post-concussion sufferers is substantial and all too often are overwhelmed by symptoms months after their injury.  There are a number of reasons why this seems to occur and many of these relate to the response of the body to stress and its associated physical sequelae. The photograph shows a TBI patient working on peak performance training using both EEG neurofeedback and physiologic biofeedback for HRV and paced breathing.  Given the extent of her brain injury, she has done very well and is improving.
“Relaxation and mindfulness have existed for over 60 years bringing together the conscious effort to control bodily systems that were once thought to be automatic and “not correctable.”  Research into chronic stress illustrates how damaging it can be on physical functioning and longevity. Concussion is described as an invisible injury yet it has an undeniable impact on sleep, concentration, and emotional well being.”     Michael Sefton, 2016
One key indicator for how a person recovers from concussion closely relates to their prototypic response to other stressful events in their lives.  According to the American Psychological Association “resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.Psychological resilience is required when “knocked down” by a concussion and to bounce back into a fully functioning, integrated person.  Where are all of these people right?  When this fails and symptoms are prolonged for 6 months or more the likelihood of returning to full employment drops precipitously.  Heart rate variability training (HRV) can assist with lowering feelings of pain and tension that make the recovery from concussion more complex. Coupled with this is training to reduce the post-concussive embitterment often described going from doctor to doctor looking for discovery and validation for what has befallen them.
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“Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” APA The biofeedback I am offering helps patients reduce autonomic overload while helping build resilience.  When individual goals are attained using biofeedback people see for themselves that they have control and can learn to lower the tension and pain they feel.
Coincident Stress and Trauma
In the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, a 2011 study suggested that pre-incident trauma may confound the recovery from concussion. “Several potentially life-altering stressful events were endorsed by at least 25% of participants as having been experienced prior to injury. The incidence of stressful life events was a significant predictor of all four outcome variables.” I have started taking data from people I see asking about trauma occurring at the same time e.g. loss of job, divorce, major health scare, family trouble.
There needs to be secondary care for the emotional loss and stress associated with PCS to reduce the impact of an abnormal emotional or psychological response to concussion.  Especially when symptoms go on and on.  “Cognitive behavioral therapy works best along with both physiologic feedback and EEG neurofeedback for reduced sympathetic arousal – from stress hormones that have gone into overdrive” from my recent blog post in which I cite Sonia Coelho Mosch, Ph.D.  A re-exertion plan along with physical therapy, aquatics, and mindfulness are components of a complete plan of action for recovery from concussion and reduced feelings of helplessness.
I sometimes see patients who exhibit such embitterment about what they believe they have “lost” they cannot move on.  It is these cases who are involved in litigation and cannot allow themselves to move on with their lives. They become emotionally stuck – reliving their loss and growing bitter about having lingering symptoms whether it is headaches, sensitivity to sound or light, inability to multi-task, or other cognitive change. Education at the time of injury may mitigate the long-term effects of concussion.
Resilience affords the patient greater coping skill and the underlying confidence that they will get better. Patients must take responsibility for their recovery and avoid being overburdened by bitterness and resentment.  Moderate physical activity and physical support is essential following a concussion. Biofeedback can help reduce the autonomic overload that slowly rises when patients feel constant tension, stress, and pain. Certainly, by obtaining greater control over the unbridled fight-flight imbalance athletes and patients alike learn to balance their parasympathetic system with the unappreciated physical and cognitive threat associated with post-concussion syndrome. “Bitterness is a prolonged, resentful feeling of disempowered and devalued victimization. Embitterment, like resentment and hostility, results from the long-term mismanagement of annoyance, irritation, frustration, anger or rage. ” according to Steven Diamond, Ph.D. who publishes on the Psychology Today website.
The APA article says several additional factors are associated with resilience, including:
  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.
All of these are factors that people can develop in themselves and lead to improved coping and may reduce the impact of concussion.

APA. Road to Resilience.  http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx. Taken May 12, 2018
Diamond, S. (2009) Anger Disorder (Part Two): Can Bitterness Become a Mental Disorder? Can Bitterness Become a Mental Disorder? PT blog https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evil-deeds/200906/anger-disorder-part-two-can-bitterness-become-mental-disorder. Taken May 13, 2018

Sefton, M. (2016) Coincident Stress may prolong symptoms of Concussion. https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/ Taken May 13, 2018

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Resilience needed after Concussion

WESTBOROUGH, MA May 2, 2018  At a meeting of the Sports Neuropsychology Society held in early May each year the topic of “resilience” emerged as a term referring to the physical and emotional response to adverse events. According to Sonia Coelho Mosch, Ph.D., “your body and mind can choose how to respond to the event with ‘I’m really screwed’ or you can change what you say to yourself with the expectation that you are going to overcome it” on Forbes.com.  Patients who obsess over every symptom may be those who go on to experience post-concussion syndrome.
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors” according to the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Mosch believes people who take responsibility for their injury and focus on intermediate goals for restoring themselves often recover quickly “as long as they do not focus on small symptoms and pathologize every internal feeling state.  She works with NHL pro hockey players as well as clinic patients who are referred for any number of possible injuries causing concussion e.g. car accident.  Positive outcomes are linked to handling the stressful event with positivity and the expectation for a positive outcome. The pro athletes more often than not express a strong willingness to do “whatever is necessary” to get back to work and take responsibility for their recovery. “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone” according to APA site.
At Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital we are often working with people who have been symptomatic for months or even years.  They come to Whittier not expecting to get better and believing they are truly sick and no one understands what they are going through. When told they must alter their expectations and begin to work towards better management of stress, physical mobility and light exercise, and nutritional health and well-being they sometimes become disenchanted and move on.
In the first meeting, I have had a patient tell me that he believed that he was dying and had started telling his friends as much.  These cases are very difficult to treat and require both physical and emotional support for successful outcome. Cognitive behavioral therapy works best along with both physiologic feedback and EEG neurofeedback for reduced sympathetic arousal – from stress hormones that have gone into overdrive.  A re-exertion plan along with physical therapy, aquatics, and mindfulness are components of a complete plan of action for recovery from concussion.

Wagner, R Neuropsychologist shares pro hockey players’ secrets to resilience. Forbes.com taken April 30, 2018
APA. Road to resilience. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx Taken 4-30-18.

Certified Brain Injury Specialist

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – RESCHEDULED
WESTBOROUGH, MA March 29, 2018  Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital is proud to announce that they will be offering a Certified Brain Injury Specialist (CBIS) class at its hospital in Westborough, MA.  This is a new class and is the first in classroom CBIS program to be offered in over 2 years here in the Boston area.  The class is occasionally offered in web-based format.  The upcoming class is being planned and will be re-scheduled for October 2018.  The class will be taught by Michael Sefton, Ph.D., who is a
downloadCertified Brain Injury Specialist -Trainer and Director of Neuropsychology and Psychological Services at the Rehabilitation Hospital.  This is a new course that provides extensive education in all areas of traumatic and acquired brain injury.  The certification comes through the Academy of Brain Injury Specialists and must be renewed annually.  Students must pass an online test at the end of the course. Students who receive their certification will receive 1 year of the Journal of Traumatic Brain Injury as part of the certification cost for the first year.
The cost of the course is approximately $525.00 which includes the examination fee and catered lunch both days. The textbook The Essential Brain Injury Guide – 5th Edition  was published in 2016 by the Brain Injury Association of America.  It is extensive in its revision over the 4th Edition text.  It can be purchased on-line or at the class for a discounted price.
download Class prerequisites include 500 hours of direct service to patients suffering from the effects of traumatic or acquired brain injury and completed their post baccalaureate training.  Others are permitted to take the class and obtain a Provisional certification that may be transferred to full certification once they have completed prerequisite educational requirements.
Contact ACBIS faculty Michael Sefton at 508-870-2222 x 2153 or msefton@whittierhealth.com about becoming a member of the class.  Interested students may also contact Beth Pusey at the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts at 508-475-0032 for more. Class size will be limited. Additional details about the Academy of Brain Injury Specialists is at https://www.biausa.org/professionals/acbis

Preventing Concussion whenever possible

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 20, 2018 I am frequently asked about helmets and those that claim to be protective against concussion.  As of this publication there are no helmets that unequivocally protect against the forces that impact the brain in the course of an athletic contest. The stunning Ted Talk video below reveals details about the protection offered by helmets today.  Concussion is described as occurring in lower brain centers not the surface of the brain as the CDC graphic describes.
“Players are rarely hit by a direct linear force.  They are struck from the side or oblique and the force causes the head to suddenly turn or twist a millisecond prior to the whiplash impact we see on television.”  Sefton, 2018
In fact, there is a newly designed mouth piece that has a built in gyroscope that is capable of measuring g-forces and rotation of the head resulting from head strikes.  Researchers now believe it is the rotational force that sends energy into the skull and brain that causes the greatest cognitive and behavioral changes in the event of a concussion. Players are rarely hit by a direct linear force.  They are struck from the side or oblique and the force causes the head to suddenly turn or twist a millisecond prior to the whiplash impact we see on television.

 

 

 

Link to Dr. Mike Evans Concussion 101 video

Mitigating the impact

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“Players are rarely hit by a direct linear force.  They are struck from the side or oblique angle and the force causes the head to suddenly turn or twist a millisecond prior to the whiplash impact we see on television.”  Sefton, 2018

Breathing, fear, and finding relief from concussion

amygdala-fear-breathing-public-neurosciencenewsWestborough, MA February 10, 2018 The link between breathing and the fear response has recently been highlighted in the Neuroscience News who reviewed a study from Northwestern University.  This study coincided nicely with the ideas I have posted for several years about delayed recovery from post-concussion syndrome (PCS) about the impact of paced breathing on the body’s changing response pattern. The study looked at the link between nasal breathing and the activation of fear and memory centers deep within the brain. Behavioral data in healthy subjects suggest that changing from mouth breathing to nose breathing may have an influence on systems deep within the brain. The discussion presented in the Neuroscience paper findings “imply that, rather than being a passive target of heightened arousal or vigilance, the phase of natural breathing is actively used to promote oscillatory synchrony and to optimize information processing in brain areas mediating goal-directed behaviors” I have seen the results of this firsthand in the biofeedback work I do.  Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) is a term used to describe the changes in heart rate that are normal with oscillating rates of breathing. In some cases a patient can breath so erratically that his heart rate falls out of synchrony with sympathetic-parasympathetic regulation.
“The breathing systematically influences cognitive tasks related to amygdala and hippocampal functions.” Zelano, C. et. al. 2016

Christina Zelano, Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow and Jay A. Gottfried 

CTE found in teenage brains by B.U. team

WESTBROUGH, MA January 18, 2018 The scientists studying the damaged brains of older athletes have had the opportunity to study brain damage in athletes who died from other causes.  In 4 such cases, there was evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that was not commensurate with the degree of brain trauma that was observed during their athletic careers according to Felice Freyer of the Boston Globe. This recent study was published in the journal Brain illustrates that the onset of CTE may be closer to onset of brain injury than first thought not much later in life.
“The report, published Thursday in the journal Brain, also provides what Goldstein called “the best evidence to date” supporting the theory that CTE is caused not just by concussions, but rather by any blow to the head, including mild impacts. Instead of diagnosing and responding to concussions, he said, coaches would do better to protect children from all hits to the head.” Felice Freyer – Boston Globe 1-8-18
The possibility of younger athletes developing CTE and the symptoms associated with this progressive disease is quite worrisome especially to parents.  It was always thought that CTE would develop later in life if at all. With the prospects of the disease having a much earlier onset the cost of CTE over a lifetime is incalculable in terms of medical costs and neuropsychological sequelae that may evolve in time. The true impact of this and the consequence for repeated, subclinical blows to the head is only now becoming clear.
Like dementia of the Alzheimer’s type the build up of tau protein underlies the changes associated with CTE. “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a condition bringing forth progressive tauopathy that occurs as a consequence of repetitive mild traumatic brain injury. We analysed post-mortem brains obtained from a cohort of 85 subjects with histories of repetitive mild traumatic brain injury and found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 68 subjects: all males, ranging in age from 17 to 98 years (mean 59.5 years), including 64 athletes, 21 military veterans (86% of whom were also athletes) and one individual who engaged in self-injurious head banging behavior” according to the journal Brain. McKee, A. et. al. 2017

McKee, A. et. al. (2017) The spectrum of disease in chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Brain, Volume 136, Issue 1, 1 January 2013, Pages 43–64, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/aws307