Children's Hospital Colorado

How to Handle the Emotional Effects of Concussion

A football player sits on the ground at practice.Concussions are currently a hot topic in the media and within the sports medicine world. It is important to know about the dangers, signs and symptoms of concussions as well as what measures can be taken to prevent or minimize concussion risk. Athletes must closely follow the recommendations of doctors and trainers before returning to play, school, or regular activities after a concussion.

What is less emphasized in concussion and/or other head injury discussions are the emotional and psychological experiences that athletes experience during or after a concussion. As with many sports injuries, concussions can place an athlete at an increased risk for depression, irritability, and isolation. The common psychological symptoms associated with injuries in general (i.e. knee injury) are often magnified when dealing with a concussion because of the sensitive nature of the brain.

An athlete that has suffered from a concussion may demonstrate dramatic or subtle changes in mood and behavior, which should be carefully monitored and attended to during and after recovery. Like many injuries, concussions can result in a number of emotional experiences.

Areas to consider or be aware of in a concussed athlete:

  • It is important to observe mood and emotional well-being, social adjustment, sleep and eating habits, etc. during the concussion period and continue to follow such symptoms after medical clearance and other medical signs of injury appear to be resolved. Continued emotional symptoms may indicate post concussion syndrome (PCS) and should be evaluated.
  • The severity of the head injury does not correlate with the likelihood of PCS. For example, a mild concussion does not necessarily mean PCS symptoms will be mild and a severe head injury does not necessarily mean that PCS symptoms will be severe.
  • Ensure athlete is receiving adequate sleep and nutrition.
  • Limit stimulation and stress but allow for regular, healthy, and moderate social interactions, as isolation can lead to worsening of symptoms.
  • Ask for modifications at school so that the athlete may engage in academics (when cleared) but does not become overwhelmed.
  • Early identification and treatment of negative emotional responses to concussions and PCS is critical and can dramatically improve outcomes, decrease recovery time, and can be helpful in preventing the development of more severe psychological responses.
  • Trained sport psychologists can help to identify concerning emotional responses to a concussion or PCS symptoms and work with athletes to help them resume healthy emotional functioning.

Written by: Kendra Dunn, Psy. D., Certified Sport Psychologist Consultant. Some information in this article has been adapted from the Etiology of the post-concussion syndrome: Physiogenesis and psychogenesis revisited article.