In some cases, a concussion may increase a person’s risk of depression. Experts do not know exactly why this is, but some theorize inflammation may play a role.

The above information comes from a 2017 research review. Research on the occurrence varies, but one 2020 study indicated that the rate of depression in high school students with a concussion was 36.4%. However, this study did not show that concussions directly caused depression in these students.

While the typical first-line treatment for depression is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), findings regarding the effectiveness of the medications for treating concussion-caused depression are inconsistent.

Read on to learn about whether concussions cause depression, as well as the causes, occurrence, risk factors, prevention, and treatment. This article also includes personal experiences from Lexi Kaz, a former competitive soccer player, and Amy Zellmer, a TBI survivor.

A football player and their helmet.Share on Pinterest
David Madison/Getty Images

A 2017 review looked at multiple studies to determine the relationship between concussions and depression. The researchers found that while depression may appear immediately after a concussion, it may also manifest later.

Increased depression risk often links to the number and frequency of concussions. This means that if a person. has more concussions, their risk of depression can increase.

Additionally, if a person has a mood disorder before getting a concussion, it increases the likelihood of depression following a concussion.

Concussions are another name for mild traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Causes of concussions include a jolt or blow to the head or a hit to the body that results in the head quickly moving back and forth.

Although experts do not know exactly why concussions cause depression, they think that one underlying factor involves inflammation.

A 2018 review noted that concussion-caused inflammation may contribute to the development of depression because inflammation can linger for years following a head injury. Researchers theorize that this chronic inflammation can lead to depression in some people.

Amy’s story: Concussion after a fall

“I fell on a patch of black ice while walking down an inclined driveway. I landed full force on the back of my skull.

I had dizziness, headaches, balance issues, and lots of short-term memory loss as well as cognitive processing problems. I was in bed most days and unable to do simple tasks. The simplest things would zap every ounce of energy out of me.

I suffered from a lot of depression. I would call it situational depression.”

Was this helpful?

It is hard to pin down a specific occurrence of depression after a concussion. There is limited research on the topic, and existing studies have conflicting results.

However, evidence states that depression is one of the primary psychological symptoms of TBI. As many as 56% of individuals with a TBI have depression 10 weeks after the injury.

A 2020 study assessed the association between physical activity-related concussions and depression symptoms in high school students. For the study, the scientists surveyed 14,765 participants. The results showed that 36.4% of students with one or more concussions experienced feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

A 2019 study evaluated the risk factors for concussions. It found that some people can often have higher chances of experiencing concussions, including:

  • females
  • people who have had a concussion before
  • those with a medical history of headaches, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and somatization (experiencing medical symptoms without a detectable cause)

Additionally, research from 2013 investigated what kinds of sports have the most risk. For females, the sport with the greatest hazard may involve soccer. By contrast, for males, sports with the greatest risks may include:

  • boxing
  • wrestling
  • basketball
  • soccer
  • lacrosse
  • football

Lexi’s story: Concussions through sports

“I played soccer growing up and for a Division 1 women’s soccer program. I’ve had about three to four concussions diagnosed, but I bet I had more.

All of them were different causes, but they were all from soccer or basketball. A girl falling on my head, heading the ball too hard, a knee to the head, etc.”

Was this helpful?

Preventing concussions can help you avoid potential consequences, including depression. The following are some steps you can take to prevent concussions:

  • Buckle up: Experts recommend that every child and adult wear a seatbelt and that young children sit in size-appropriate car seats.
  • Eliminate driving hazards: It is a good idea to avoid driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Remove hazards in the home: You can prevent falls by removing hazards, including putting toys away and securing rugs and cords. Installing handrails for people with mobility challenges can also help prevent falls.
  • Wear helmets: It is important for a person to wear a helmet or headgear when engaging in sports, such as cycling, skiing, baseball, football, wrestling, skateboarding, and hockey.

The following are some preventive measures relating to sports:

  • Avoid diving in shallow water and skateboarding or cycling on uneven surfaces.
  • Wear clothing that is appropriate for the sport and does not interfere with vision.
  • Supervise young children at all times when playing sports.
  • Follow rules at swimming pools and water parks.
  • Regularly perform safety checks on playgrounds, sports fields, and equipment.

A common first-line treatment for depression is SSRI medication. However, a 2018 review stated that research has conflicting results on the efficacy of these medications for depression following a TBI.

To treat people with depression following a TBI, the review authors proposed exploring alternative treatments. One option is reducing inflammation. Research on animals indicates that this may have a corresponding effect on reducing depression.

Lexi’s story: Finding answers

“Some would doctors would say ‘yes’ and others would say ‘I don’t know.’ The most frustrating thing was that it was all ‘subjective.’ They based their diagnosis on my answers — there was no real objective data.

I worked with one of the best neuro therapists in LA. He helped me in so many ways with my cognitive functioning. I had a lot of trouble focusing before doing brain exercises with him!”

Was this helpful?

Amy’s story: Recovery through functional neurology

“I went to any doctor with ‘neuro’ in their name or credentials. They all kept telling me that there is nothing to do and to just give it more time. ‘Come back in six months if it isn’t better’ became a joke.

I finally found functional neurology after two and a half years of trying to find answers. It looks at the entire system and assesses what isn’t working properly. They were able to help me resolve my dizziness within a few treatments, and from there we were able to resolve most of my other symptoms within a year.”

Was this helpful?

In some cases, concussions can contribute to depression. Symptoms can manifest immediately following a concussion, or they may appear later as a delayed reaction.

The factor underlying the connection between concussions and depression may be inflammation. Research regarding the occurrence varies, but one 2020 study indicated that depression occurred at a rate of 36.4% in high school students after a concussion.

Despite the common use of SSRIs as first-line treatment for depression, in general, research is inconclusive about their effectiveness for concussion-caused depression.

Experts suggest reducing inflammation, which may lower depression, and preventing concussions by following safety measures, such as wearing seat belts and removing hazards from the home.