A new research study at Holland Bloorview is testing the impact of a six-week program of education, low-intensity exercise and relaxation on 200 youth aged 10 to 18 who have concussions, most of them sport-related.
“We want to know if this active rehab approach works for kids with concussions, and, if it does, at what time points after the injury,” says co-investigator Anne Hunt.
The study design is innovative because it’s carried out by students who are clinicians in training. This includes students in their final year of occupational and physical therapy and kinesiology.
The youth with concussions first come in for a series of brain and body fitness tests. “Based on this, we prescribe an individual exercise program that has an aerobic component, like walking or riding a stationary bike, as well as up to 10 minutes of sports-specific coordination drills, and five minutes of relaxation through deep breathing or visualization,” Anne says. “We go through our Concussion and You handbook, which covers things like how to conserve energy, good sleep hygiene and tips for returning to school.”
Over the next six weeks, the youth carry out the exercise program at home and call or visit the students running the program for support. At three and six weeks they come in to have their fitness levels and health reassessed.
“Families tell us that health providers or coaches encourage the kids to push through their symptoms, or to work at a higher intensity than we do,” Anne says. “This can make their symptoms worse or slow their recovery. We teach them what it means to work at a low to moderate intensity. Ours is a very careful, methodical program. Some kids may only be able to start at two minutes of aerobics when they first come in.”
Having students run the program has many benefits. “We tell the clients participating that they’re not just helping us learn about concussion, that they’re training these students,” Anne says. “The kids tell us they love working with the students, who are younger, whereas I’m sort of more of a mother figure. All of the students come in with a wealth of experience. For one client they may need to develop sport coordination drills for volleyball, whereas another client needs dance or lacrosse drills. The students work together, given their different professional roles, to divvy up the assessments and scope of practice.”
Andi McHugh, a physiotherapy placement student, says she’s gained confidence “because we’ve been given a lot of autonomy. In other placements, you’re working more closely with your supervisor. Here, it’s more self-directed learning but with peers you can bounce ideas off.”
Tesca Andrew-Wasylik, who just finished a five-week placement in the concussion program, agrees. “Being part of a student-run clinic is such a unique experience. I've enjoyed the challenge of being presented with a problem and finding a way to solve it independently, while still knowing I’m being supported by my supervisors. I think it’s very successful in preparing students for the real world and reinforcing autonomous learning. I’ve learned so much about collaborative practice and family-centred care, as well as learning from the families and kids that I worked with.”
Tesca graduates this year as a physiotherapist. She's shown working with Emma, 10, in the photo above.
The research is funded by Scotiabank, and is cost-efficient because it’s implemented by students rather than staff.
Study results are expected in two years and the researchers hope they will inform best-practice guidelines on rehab for youth with concussion.