Evidence-Based Reviews

Psychiatric manifestations of sport-related concussion

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Careful diagnosis and management can help avoid unnecessary treatment or restrictions.



Ms. J, age 19, is a Division I collegiate volleyball player who recently sustained her third sport-related concussion (SRC). She has no psychiatric history but does have a history of migraine, and her headaches have worsened since the most recent SRC. She has a family history of depression (mother and her sole sibling). Ms. J recently experienced the loss of her coach, someone she greatly admired, in a motor vehicle accident. She is referred to outpatient psychiatry for assessment of mood symptoms that are persisting 1 month after the SRC. Upon assessment, she is found to meet 8 of the 9 criteria for a major depressive episode, including suicidality with vague plans but no intent to end her life.

Although Ms. J does not have a history of psychiatric illness, her psychiatrist recognizes that she has factors that increase her risk of developing depression post-SRC, and of poor recovery from SRC. These include pre-existing symptoms, such as her history of migraine, which is common in patients after SRC. Additionally, a family history of psychiatric disorders and high life stressors (eg, recent loss of her coach) are risk factors for a poor SRC recovery.1 Due to these risk factors and the severity of Ms. J’s symptoms—which include suicidal ideation—the psychiatrist believes that her depressive symptoms might be unlikely to improve in the coming weeks, so he establishes a diagnosis of “depressive disorder due to another medical condition (concussion)” because the development of her depressive symptoms coincided with the SRC. If Ms. J had a pre-existing mood disorder, or if her depression had not developed until later in the post-injury period, it would have been more difficult to establish confidently that the depressive episode was a direct physiologic consequence of the SRC; if that had been the case, the diagnosis probably would have been unspecified or other specified depressive disorder.2

SRC is a traumatic brain injury (TBI) induced by biomechanical forces, typically resulting in short-lived impairment of neurologic function, although signs and symptoms may evolve over minutes to hours.3 It largely reflects functional, rather than structural, brain disturbances.3 SRC has been deemed a “neuropsychiatric syndrome” because psychiatric manifestations are common.4 There may be a myriad of biopsychosocial factors involved in the etiology of psychiatric symptoms in an individual who sustains an SRC. For example, SRC may have a direct physiologic cause of psychiatric symptoms based on the location and degree of injury to the brain. Additionally, pre-existing psychiatric symptoms might increase the likelihood of sustaining an SRC. Finally, as with any major injury, illness, or event, stressors associated with SRC may cause psychiatric symptoms.

Regardless of causal factors, psychiatrists should be comfortable with managing psychiatric symptoms that commonly accompany this condition. This article highlights possible psychiatric manifestations of SRC and delineates high-yield management considerations. Although it focuses on concussions that occur in the context of sport, much of the information applies to patients who experience concussions from other causes.

SRC and depression

Changes in mood, emotion, and behavior are common following SRC. On the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool 5 (SCAT5),5 which is a standardized tool used to evaluate athletes suspected of having sustained a concussion, most symptoms overlap with those attributable to anxiety and depression.4,6 These include5:

  • feeling slowed down
  • “not feeling right”
  • difficulty concentrating
  • fatigue or loss of energy
  • feeling more emotional
  • irritability
  • sadness
  • feeling nervous or anxious
  • difficulty falling asleep.

A recent systematic review of mental health outcomes of SRC in athletes found that the most commonly described and studied psychiatric symptoms following SRC were depression, anxiety, and impulsivity.7 The most rigorous study included in this review found depressive symptoms in 20% of collegiate athletes following SRC (all tested within 41 days of the SRC) vs 5% in the control group.8 These researchers delineated factors that predicted depressive symptoms after SRC (Box 18). Data were insufficient to draw conclusions about the association between SRC and other psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety.8

Box 1

Factors that predict depressive symptoms after concussion
  • Baseline depressive symptoms
  • Baseline “post-concussion” symptoms
  • Lower estimated premorbid intelligence
  • Nonwhite ethnicity
  • Increased number of games missed following injury
  • Age of first participation in organized sport (more depression in athletes with fewer years of experience)

Source: Reference 8

Psychiatric manifestations of concussion in retired athletes may shed light on the long-term impact of SRC on psychiatric disorders, particularly depression. Hutchison et al9 conducted a systematic review of mental health outcomes of SRC in retired athletes.Two of the included studies that measured clinically diagnosed disorders found positive associations between self-reported concussion and clinically diagnosed depression.10,11 Hutchison et al9 found insufficient data to draw conclusions about depression and a lifetime history of subconcussive impacts—a topic that is receiving growing attention.

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