Happy Brain PT Rethinks How We Treat Brain Injuries

Sometimes experience is the best teacher, even if the experience is an unpleasant one. That’s how it was for Annie Howard in 2018 when a dream trip skiing volcanoes went awry. “I was on a ski mountaineering trip in Chile. On the last day, skiing our biggest objective, I took a significant fall and ended up with a torn knee ligament and a concussion,” Howard says. 

Recovery after knee surgery took months, but that was only the beginning for Howard. “I had brain fog. I struggled to feel in control of my emotions, I was dizzy and my ears felt stuffed like I had a sinus infection. I would get awful headaches when I started ramping up exercise, and I just didn’t feel clear. In a weird way, though, my recovery really reignited my passion for physical therapy.”

Brain injuries can be a black box, even for experts. And for everyone who skis, snowboards or participates in any mountain sport they’re a constant threat. The delicate dance with gravity can go awry for just a moment, and everything can change. 

At the time of her injury, Howard had been a physical therapist for eight years and had significant neurological discipline experience, but it didn’t prepare her for her own recovery. “I tried traditional physical therapy routines, but it wasn’t working sufficiently. Then I found a physical therapist who had a different approach—one that took the disparate parts of the clinical practice guidelines and integrated them. Once I started working with her, everything improved,” says Howard. 

Drawing from her experience, Howard developed a unique treatment program to help others who struggle with post-concussion symptoms and started her own practice: Happy Brain Concussion Physical Therapy. “We’re not just trying to address symptoms,” she says. “We’re working to rehabilitate the systems at the root of the symptoms by integrating the visual, vestibular, autonomic and cognitive systems at the same time. The treatment isn’t compensatory, so we don’t treat light sensitivity by telling a patient to wear sunglasses. We want to address the root of where the light sensitivity comes from.” 

Though this type of therapy is considered alternative, Howard insists there’s no part of her program  that’s outside of professional clinical guidelines. The difference is in taking the disparate facets of treatment out of siloed focus to treat the systems as part of the whole. 

In the process, Howard’s grown closer to the community she lives in. “Brain injuries can affect anyone in our community, and I’ve been fortunate to build a lot of close relationships with patients.”

3100 W. Pinebrook Rd., 203-822-2098, happybrainpt.com

Save A Brain

Howard has also recently partnered with the Utah-based nonprofit Save A Brain, which helps spread awareness about traumatic brain injuries (TBI) while raising funds to help with treatment. Save A Brain was started by Kelsey Boyer, a professional snowboarder who sustained a TBI requiring surgery to alleviate a subdural hematoma. Boyer struggled through a long, complex recovery over the course of several years. She started Save A Brain to support those struggling through their own TBI recoveries and help ease the significant financial burden brain injuries often entail. Visit the Save A Brain website to learn more and support their mission of helping keep as many brains as possible happy and healthy; saveabraininc.com

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Tony Gill
Tony Gillhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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