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Traumatic Brain Injury Recovery Exercises: 20 Physical & Cognitive TBI Exercises

woman engaging in traumatic brain injury recovery exercises at home

Many of the secondary effects caused by a TBI can be managed through traumatic brain injury recovery exercises. Rehabilitation provides many benefits such as improving movement, rebuilding strength, and restoring cognitive function.

Finding fun, engaging exercises is crucial to ensure you make the most out of your recovery. To help you navigate the rehabilitation process, we’ve gathered 20 of the most effective physical and cognitive TBI exercises to do at home.

Benefits of Exercising After Traumatic Brain Injury

After a traumatic brain injury, neural pathways may become damaged or destroyed, depending on the severity of the injury. Without healthy neural pathways, the brain cannot communicate with the affected muscles. This can result in impaired cognitive and physical function such as loss of memory or limited mobility. Fortunately, the brain is versatile and has the ability to rewire itself through neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity strengthens existing neural pathways and creates new ones, which helps improve overall function after a TBI.

There are various types of TBI and generally speaking, milder traumatic brain injuries have higher chances of recovery. However, there is hope for recovery from a moderate or even a severe traumatic brain injury with consistent exercise. Again, the key to recovery is neuroplasticity, which is best activated through high repetitions of exercise, or massed practice. The more a skill is practiced, the more the brain will recognize and adapt that function.

Neuroplasticity aside, exercise also helps increase blood flow to your brain. Proper blood flow is necessary for the body to function efficiently, but it can often be reduced after a TBI due to lack of movement. Thus, the more you exercise, the more blood flow will increase to provide essential oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.

It’s important to note that sometimes TBI survivors experience other types of injury at the same time such as broken bones, muscular strains, or wounds. These injuries often require surgery and/or special precautions such as avoiding heavy weights or strenuous movements.

Therefore, be sure to consult with your therapist before trying any new exercises to ensure they are safe for you. Remember to start with exercises suitable for your ability level and increase the challenge as you improve. The more you practice, the more likely you will see positive results.

Getting Started with Exercises for Brain Injury Recovery

Group of individuals exercising happily after a TBI.

Exercising after a brain injury is important, but it’s equally important to find exercises that are suitable and effective for you. For example, if you choose exercises with a high difficulty level, you may get discouraged quickly. But if you choose exercises that are not challenging you, it won’t be optimal for TBI recovery.

To maximize recovery, you must engage in exercises that stimulate neuroplasticity. This can include both active and passive exercises. Active exercises often require you to exert effort whereas passive exercises do not involve excessive amounts of force or energy. Rather, with the assistance of your unaffected side, therapist, or trained caregiver, your body is moved for you.

Moving the body passively through its full range of motion helps stimulate the brain and activate neuroplasticity. Passive movements can also reestablish communication between the brain and body to help maximize chances of recovery from post-TBI paralysis or severe weakness.

Additionally, passive range of motion exercises can increase muscle flexibility which can help prevent contractures (a serious complication) from developing. While active exercises are usually performed alone, passive range of motion exercises can be done with or without assistance.

When choosing your TBI exercises for your home therapy regimen, it can help to think about the muscles you want to target and your ability level. Your therapist is also a great resource that can provide you with a customized rehabilitation plan with cognitive and physical therapy exercises best suitable for your condition.

Your therapist may also recommend therapy equipment to use at home in between therapy sessions, such as FitMi. This is an interactive neurorehabilitation device that helps improve mobility after TBI. FitMi provides full-body exercises to help motivate you to accomplish massed practice. High repetition of TBI exercises with FitMi helps spark neuroplasticity and keep the brain stimulated.

Top Traumatic Brain Injury Recovery Exercises

There are various types of TBI exercises that help target different muscle groups. While choosing which exercises to do can seem overwhelming, we’ve compiled a list of the top TBI exercises to help you get started.

Here are 20 of the most effective exercises for traumatic brain injury recovery:

Leg Exercises for TBI

Demonstration of the hip internal/external rotation, a type of a traumatic brain injury recovery exercise.
  • Hip Internal/External Rotation: For this brain injury recovery exercise, you will need a towel. Start in a seated position, and place a towel under your foot to make it easier to move. Then, slide your foot towards your midline and push your legs outward to the side. Use your hands to assist if necessary. Repeat 10 times, then switch to the other leg. Do 3 sets of 10.
  • Quad Exercise: For this TBI exercise, lay flat on your back either on the floor or a bed. Start with your knees bent on the floor, then straighten the knees and bring your toes up towards the ceiling. You can wrap a resistance band around your ankles to make it more challenging. Try to do 3 sets of 10 on each leg.
  • Hip Abduction: Begin by sitting in a chair and holding one leg slightly above the floor. Then, kick your leg out slowly as far as you can, then inward toward your midline. Aim for 3 sets of 10 as well on each side.
  • Seated Marching: This TBI exercise is performed in a seated position. First, lift your affected leg up toward your chest and hold for a second or as long as you can. Then, slowly bring it back down. Repeat a couple times alternating with the other leg. This can be done passively by using your arms to assist your legs.

Core Exercises for Brain Injury Recovery

Demonstration of a core exercise for brain injury recovery known as the lateral trunk flexion.
  • Lateral Trunk Flexion (Oblique Crunches): Start this core TBI exercise seated in a chair. Then, dip your right shoulder down towards your right hip. Next, use your core to pull your trunk back up to center. Dip your left shoulder down to your left hip, and pull yourself up again (you can use your arm to help push you back up). Repeat about 15 times on each side.
  • Forward Punches: While seated, clasp your hands together and slowly punch forward while keeping your arms parallel to the floor. Lean forward as far as you can. Then, use your back muscles to pull your trunk back to an upright position. You should feel this in your back and core. Repeat about 10 times, but make sure to stop immediately if you feel any pain or discomfort in your back.
  • Seated Trunk Extension: Another helpful core exercise for brain injury recovery is seated trunk extension. For this exercise, sit in a chair and lean forward as far as you can safely without falling over. Then, use your back muscles to push yourself back up. Again, you may use your arms to give yourself a boost. Repeat 3 sets of 15.
  • Core Toe Taps: This is one of the more advanced TBI exercises on this list, therefore it’s important to consult with your therapist before doing it. To begin, lie down on your back and bend your knees at a 90-degree angle. Then, cross your left leg over your right knee. Next, bring your left leg back down and tap the floor with your foot. Cross it back over your right knee, and repeat. Try to do this 10 times on each leg.

Balance Exercises for TBI

  • Weight Shifts: Weight shifts are great exercises for the early stages of brain rehabilitation. First, stand up with your feet shoulder-width apart and your weight equally distributed on both feet. Then, shift your weight to your right foot and lift your left foot slightly off the ground. Hold for up to 30 seconds or as long as you can while maintaining good form. Then return to your starting position and repeat about 5 times on each side.
  • Romberg Stance: Stand with your feet together and eyes closed. (To ease into it, you can hold on to the back of a chair with both hands). The goal is to stand for 2 minutes, but only hold for as long as you can. You may feel your body sway when you close your eyes, but that is completely normal because your brain uses your vision to help keep your body upright and balanced. When vision is removed, your brain has to adjust and use a different sense (proprioception) to help you balance. Thus, you are activating a different part of your brain which is great for TBI recovery.
  • Staggered Stance: Another popular balance exercise for TBI survivors is the staggered stance. For this exercise, stand upright with one foot slightly in front of the other, with the heel of one foot lined up with the toes of the other. Hold for about 30-60 seconds, then switch to your other foot. To increase the difficulty, you can try this stance with your eyes closed.
  • Calf Raises: Calf raises are also great TBI exercises. To perform these, hold on to the back of a chair and rise to your tiptoes slowly for about 10 times. To increase difficulty, you can close your eyes as well. These are especially helpful for brain injury rehabilitation because they can help improve your coordination and gait.

Arm Exercises for Brain Injury Recovery

Demonstration of a TBI exercise (pushing movement).
  • Shoulder Flexion: This TBI exercise can help strengthen your shoulder muscles after brain injury. First, hold a water bottle in your hand and rest your hand in your lap. Then, lift your arm up to a 90-degree angle in front of you until your hand is at your eye level (make sure your arm is fully extended). Hold for about 5 seconds, then slowly bring your arm back down to your lap. Repeat 10 times on each arm.
  • Bicep Curls: For this TBI exercise, hold a water bottle in your hand and rest your arm by your side. Then with your elbow glued to your side, flex your bicep to bring the water bottle up to your shoulder. Finally, bring your arm back down as slowly as you can. When you lower your arm slowly, you also activate your triceps. Repeat 10 times on each side.
  • Pushing Movement: Place a water bottle on the left side of the table within your range of motion. Then, hook your wrist on the outside of the bottle and use your arm to slowly push it straight across the table. With the same movement, push the bottle back in the opposite direction. Repeat 10 times on each arm.
  • Shoulder Abduction (Deltoids): For this TBI arm exercise, you will need a therapy resistance band and a sturdy chair. While holding one end of the band, sit on top of the other end, or place it under one foot depending on the length of your band. Then, extend your arm (the one holding the band) straight out to your side. Loop the band around your hand to keep your grip. Finally, with your arm straight out, raise your arm as high as you can above your shoulder. Then with slow and controlled movement, bring it back down. Aim to repeat 3 sets of 10 exercises on each arm.

Cognitive Exercises for TBI

CT Cognitive Therapy App to motivate survivors to practice traumatic brain injury recovery exercises.
  • Journal/Creative Writing: For this cognitive TBI exercise it helps to change your scenery. Try to find a nice place and sit outside with a journal. Take a moment to observe your surroundings and write down everything you see, hear, and smell. This helps engage different areas of the brain and improve your concentration. If you are still working on your fine motor skills and cannot write yet, you can say your observations out loud. The goal is to pay close attention to your surroundings and stimulate the brain.
  • Spaced Retrieval: When memory is impaired after a brain injury, it can be challenging to follow a conversation. One of the best ways to help improve your memory is through spaced retrieval, an evidence-based technique that helps people recall information over progressively longer intervals. To practice this TBI exercise, first create flashcards with different information you want to learn and quiz yourself. This helps stimulate neuroplasticity, and with consistent practice, improves memory.
  • Puzzles & Board Games: “Puzzles and board games are great fun ways to practice cognitive skills. Puzzles help challenge your memory, strategy, and problem solving skills. Board games are usually played as a group activity which adds a social dynamic for more cognitive stimulation. There are a variety of games you can try that can be done solo or with friends such as Chess, Sudoku, Scrabble, and Uno.
  • Cognitive Therapy Games: For extra motivation, you can use cognitive exercise apps such as the CT Cognitive Therapy App. It provides access to over 100,000+ cognitive rehabilitation exercises that help to improve speech, memory, and critical thinking skills. The more you practice high repetition of exercises, the sharper your cognitive skills will become.

While there are various types of activities for brain injury patients you can try, it’s important to consult with your therapist before performing any new exercises. Your therapist can provide guidance and ensure these TBI exercises are safe and suitable for your condition/ability level.

Engaging In Traumatic Brain Injury Recovery Exercises

After a TBI, survivors may struggle with physical and/or cognitive function. Fortunately, rehabilitation exercise has been proven to help improve these effects and promote recovery. Engaging in traumatic brain injury recovery exercises is key to maximizing your independence and restoring overall function.

We hope this article helped you understand the benefits of exercising after a brain injury, and encouraged you to try out some of these TBI exercises. As always, be sure to consult with your therapist before performing any new exercises.

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