Concussions are associated with symptoms of mental disorders, research shows

Photo: Ric Laf/Flickr

Photo: RicLaf/Flickr. 


By Mads A. Wickstrøm
Exposure to repetitive concussions in sports is associated with an increased risk of symptoms of common mental disorders, according to recent research.

A recent study carried out by researchers from South Africa, Japan and Scotland, reveals that athletes who are exposed to repetitive concussions, are at an increased risk of experiencing symptoms of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, distress, sleep disturbance, and substance abuse.

The researchers surveyed 576 former male professional athletes retired from football (soccer), rugby and ice hockey. Of these, 23% had not suffered from concussions, 34% had sustained two or three, 18% four or five, and 11% had suffered from six or more concussions during their career.

Moreover, the results suggested that former athletes who had four of five concussions were nearly 1.5 times more likely to report symptoms of common mental disorders (CMDs) than those who did not experience concussions during their career. Those who suffered six or more concussions were between two and five times more likely to report CMD symptoms.

Based on these results, the researchers emphasize that there is a need to improve management of concussion, mainly by educating coaches and players on the correct procedure when a player is experiencing a concussion. Likewise, there should be support in place for former athletes who are suffering from mental health problems, the researchers further noted.

In an interview with the World Players’ Union, FIFPro, lead researcher and FIFPro Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge, explained that the results of the study highlight the need for action on the part of the sports community.  

“This is an important piece of research that suggests concussion might be a contributor to the mental health problems suffered by many players,” Dr. Gouttebarge said.

“We as football stakeholders – federations, clubs and player unions - need to be alert to the mental health of players, both during and after their careers. That means educating players about the dangers of what can be an intense and stressful career and supporting them when they need assistance,” he added.

The link between brain disease and American football

Earlier this year, researchers from Boston University investigated the relationship between American football players and cases of the degenerative brain disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

In a study of 202 football players whose brains were donated for research, a high proportion had evidence of CTE, suggesting that CTE may be related to prior participation in football. 

The study identified the disease in 99% of the brains from deceased National Football League (NFL) players. It was also found in 48 out of 54 former college players and in three out of 14 former high school players.

“There is no question that there is a problem in football. That people who play football are at risk for this disease. And we urgently need to find answers for not just football players, but veterans and other individuals exposed to head trauma,” Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University’s CTE Center, said following the publication of the study. 

Like Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge, Dr. Ann McKee emphasised the need for raising awareness of sports incurred concussions and the potential negative consequences, to be able to take preventive measures.

“It certainly can be prevented and that's why we really need to understand how much exposure to head trauma and what type of head trauma the body can sustain before it gets into this irreversible cascade of events,” McKee said.

Further reading:

  • research article about the association between long-time injuries and mental health.

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