According to research published this week in Neurology, athletes who suffer from aches and pains that have no known physical cause recover from concussion slower. The researchers hope that the findings will help improve outcomes for those more prone to longer recovery times.

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New research shows that psychosomatic complaints might influence concussion recovery times.

After motor vehicle crashes, sports injuries are the second leading cause of traumatic brain injury among people aged 15-24.

Approximately 300,000 traumatic brain injuries occur in the US each year, the vast majority of which are concussions.

Such a common and potentially life-changing injury has attracted a great deal of scientific research. Despite this, the recovery and prognosis of concussion patients still hold a number of mysteries.

Recovery times vary widely, from days to weeks, or even months. Some factors are known to influence the length of recovery, including age, health prior to injury, how severe the injury was and how well the individual takes care of themselves following the concussion.

Symptoms can range from feeling dizzy and tired through to more intrusive psychological changes that can cause the individual to become withdrawn and be more easily upset or confused.

As it stands, the recommended course of action to promote a quick recovery includes getting as much rest and sleep as possible and avoiding mentally and physically challenging situations. Reaction times might be slower, so driving and operating machinery is not recommended; also, alcohol is thought to slow the rate of healing, so it should be generally avoided.

Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin recently investigated another, rather intriguing contributing factor to concussion recovery – psychosomatic symptoms; these are defined as aches and pains without any physical cause. They are considered to be psychological distress expressed as a physical complaint.

The research team, led by Lindsay D. Nelson, PhD, assistant professor of Neurosurgery and Neurology, set out to investigate whether these psychologically based physical feelings might impact the rate of recovery from a concussion.

The study followed 2,055 high school and college athletes. Before the season began, the athletes were evaluated for cognitive skills, balance, psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, and psychosomatic complaints that included dizziness, upset stomach and chest pains. Around half of the group experienced at least one of the symptoms, and the other half had none.

To understand how serious the psychosomatic issues were, the researchers asked the athletes how often they were bothered by the symptoms.

Athletes who received a concussion during the season (127 in total) were assessed within 24 hours of the incident, then 8, 15 and 45 days later.

Roughly 80% of the athletes who were concussed were male; the majority were football players (61%), followed by soccer players (24%) and then lacrosse players (6%).

Across the group, concussion symptoms lasted an average of 5 days, 64% reported that their symptoms had cleared within a week, and 95% reported no symptoms after a month.

The researchers found that the athletes who reported psychosomatic complaints before the injury took significantly longer to recover than those who had not.

Of the athletes who reported psychosomatic symptoms, 80% recovered within 20 days of the injury. For those who reported no symptoms, 80% made a full recovery by the 10-day mark. Additionally, as expected, individuals who reported more severe concussion symptoms, such as headaches and dizziness, took longer to recover.

Nelson says:

That these athletes were relatively healthy physically and psychologically highlights the relevance of psychosomatic symptoms and the role they play in recovery even in healthy people.”

The findings are preliminary at this stage, and further work needs to be done; Nelson hopes that these results will spur on future studies, “because identifying those at risk for prolonged recovery is critical to developing early interventions that improve outcomes for people who suffer concussions.”

There are plenty of reasons to continue research into concussion, not least the recent findings covered by Medical News Today suggesting that concussion triples or quadruples risk of suicide.