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Concussions: The psychological impact on young athletes

Concussions: The psychological impact on young athletes


By Nora Emmanuel

Millions of young athletes have been impacted by concussions in recent years and the increased concerns from parents, coaches and athletes regarding this serious brain injury have stimulated a demand in scientifically tested research.

“These individuals want to know the risks and potential consequences of concussions, both long-term and short-term,” explains Lisa Koehl, a doctoral candidate in the University of Kentucky's Department of Psychology.

Koehl teamed with Dr. Dan Han, a University of Kentucky assistant professor of Neurology, and conducted research on sports concussions aimed at educating health care providers, parents and athletes on the various ways concussions can affect young athletes both cognitively and psychologically.

The symptoms associated with concussions can vary widely from person to person and can include physical, emotional and cognitive difficulties.

A number of factors affect people’s recovery from a concussion, and studies have shown that teenage athletes may take up to seven to 10 days longer to recover than older athletes.

“Increased knowledge in the area of sports concussions allows healthcare providers to treat concussions appropriately and allows parents and their athletes to make informed decisions about involvement in higher risk contact sports,” she says.


The study involved 37 athletes age 12 to 17 who had persisting symptoms for an average of 37 days following a concussion. Participants were excluded if they had a previous history of psychological issues.

One group of 22 teens had emotional symptoms such as irritability, aggression, anxiety, depression, apathy, frequent mood changes or excessive emotional reactions after the concussion.

The second group of 15 teens did not have emotional symptoms. There were no differences between the two groups in factors such as what percentage experienced loss of consciousness or amnesia, indicating that the groups were likely comparable in the level of severity of concussion.

The study found that of the 22 teens who had emotional symptoms, five teens (23 percent) were sensitive to light while three teens (14 percent) were sensitive to noise. In comparison, of the 15 teens without emotional symptoms only two teens (13 percent) were sensitive to light and no teens were sensitive to noise.

Teens who had anxiety were 55 percent more likely to self-report attention difficulties than those without anxiety, while teens with irritability/aggression were 35 percent more likely to self-report problems with attention than teens without irritability.

The number of concussions experienced and whether teens also had headaches or nausea were not related to whether they also had emotional symptoms. Researchers also found that having a family history of psychiatric problems did not make teens any more or less likely to have emotional symptoms after a concussion.

Children involved in the study were young athletes who had all experienced concussions and reported symptoms, which required follow up assessment.

“The current study highlights the psychological component of prolonged symptoms, especially anxiety and irritability,” Han says. “These are two very important take-way messages for parents of young athletes: most concussions heal quickly and some factors that may elongate reported symptoms are treatable through appropriate psychological care.”

The researchers stress the important role parents play in noticing the signs, as well as monitoring the recovery process.

“Parents should assist their young athletes in following guidelines for the symptomatic period following a concussion, including adhering to return-to-play decisions,” says Koehl. “However, parents may also wish to be mindful of the way in which they discuss these concerns with their young athletes to reduce psychological factors such as anxiety, depression and associated irritability. Finally, parents should speak to their healthcare providers regarding individual circumstances. While the literature suggests that most concussions heal quickly, cumulative concussions over time may result in higher risk and increased concern.”

Nora Emmanuel is a freelance writer in Coral Springs, Fla.

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