New research presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s Sports Concussion Conference in Chicago suggests that, following a concussion, some teenagers are more susceptible to emotional symptoms than others.

In particular, the study – from researchers at the University of Kentucky in Lexington – suggests that teenagers who are sensitive to light or noise after a concussion are more likely to also experience emotional symptoms, such as anxiety.

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Of the 37 teens, after their concussion, 22 of them experienced emotional symptoms including irritability, excessive emotional reactions or frequent mood changes.

The researchers examined 37 athletes between the ages of 12 and 17 who had persisting symptoms for an average of 37 days following a concussion. If participants had a previous history of psychological issues, they were excluded from the study.

Of the 37 teens, after their concussion, 22 of them experienced emotional symptoms including irritability, aggression, anxiety, depression, apathy, excessive emotional reactions or frequent mood changes.

The remaining 15 teenagers did not report emotional symptoms. The researchers say that the two groups were comparable in severity of concussion, with a similar percentage in both experiencing loss of consciousness or amnesia.

The researchers found that, in the teens who experienced emotional symptoms, five of them (23%) were sensitive to light and three of them (14%) were sensitive to noise. In the group who did not experience emotional symptoms, only two of them (13%) were sensitive to light, and no teens in this group were sensitive to noise.

According to the study, the number of concussions experienced by the teenage athletes and whether they had headaches or nausea were not linked to whether they experienced emotional symptoms.

Fast facts on sports concussion
  • In the US, there are 1.6-3.8 million concussions annually that occur as a result of injury from sport
  • Currently, concussions account for nearly 9% of all US high school sports injuries
  • American emergency departments treat around 173,285 traumatic brain injuries related to sports and recreation every year in adolescents aged up to 19 years old.

The nature of the emotional problem experienced after the concussion also influenced the extent of self-reported difficulties with attention. Those who experienced anxiety after their concussion were 55% more likely to self-report attention problems, while the teens with symptoms of irritability or aggression were only 35% as likely to report attention difficulties.

However, this study has a small sample size, and the authors emphasize that these are simply preliminary findings and the next step is to replicate the study with a larger sample size.

“While most people recover from a concussion within a week, a number of factors affect people’s recovery, and studies have shown that teenage athletes may take up to seven to 10 days longer to recover than older athletes,” say study authors Lisa M. Koehl and Dong Y. Han.

“Identifying factors such as these, that may exacerbate issues teens experience after concussion, may help in planning for the appropriate treatment and in making decisions about when to return to play and what accommodations are needed at school for these athletes.”

Earlier this week, Medical News Today reported on another paper presented by the American Academy of Neurology, which asserted that doctors have an obligation to educate and protect athletes from sports concussion, only giving them the “all-clear” when medically ready.