Sports injuries can hurt more than just the body


Sports are good for kids.

Aside from the plain benefits of physical activity, sports – especially team sports – teach cooperation, teamwork and other important life lessons. The Aspen Institute’s Project Play issued a report in 2016 that details many of the physical and social benefits of athletics for kids.

However, injuries happen in sports. And while most young athletes pick themselves up and go on, some injuries – particularly severe ones – can create serious mental issues in some children. “Mind, Body and Sport,” a new guide from the National Collegiate Athletic Association offers a look into the mental health of student athletes.

Injuries aren’t always purely physical

According to the guide from the NCAA’s Sport Science Institute (SSI), not every young athlete responds to injury the same way. Emotional reactions to injuries are perfectly normal. However, for some young athletes, the experience is traumatic enough to trigger – or reveal – mental problems like depression, anxiety and eating disorders, especially if those injuries are severe enough to threaten their ability to participate in sports.

The guide divides unhealthy reactions to injury under three groups:

  • Persistent symptoms: These include sleep disturbances, irritability and changes in appetite
  • Worsening symptoms: Depression, apathy from lack of motivation, disordered eating and a feeling of alienation from teammates, friends and family
  • Excessive symptoms: Emotional outbursts including rage and/or crying, substance abuse and signs of being in intense pain.

The SSI’s guide describes how eating disorders can take root in an athlete: When injured, athletes may attempt to punish themselves by refusing to eat when they’re sidelined. Many athletes seem to be susceptible to these diseases. According to a study cited by the National Eating Disorder Association, over one-third of female Division 1 NCAA athletes reported the signs and symptoms of being at risk for anorexia. Eating disorders are especially alarming because they have the highest mortality rates of any mental disorder.

Depression is another major risk during an athlete’s convalescence. In driven, motivated people, a sudden reduction in their ability to perform can lead to a sense of performance failure. In some athletes, this can be a very serious situation. The SSI’s guide relates the story of Denver Broncos wide receiver Kenny McKinley, who committed suicide at 23 in 2010 when he was sidelined for an entire season due to a knee injury.

But one of the greatest risks to an injured athlete’s mental health is concussion.

Concussions can stack up

Mayo Clinic describes a concussion as a traumatic brain injury that alters the brain’s functions. The immediate, usually temporary effects of a concussion include a headache and problems with concentration, balance and memory. Concussions can be caused by a blow to the head, but also by violent shaking of the upper body and head. Also, not all concussions result in a loss of consciousness; some athletes can be concussed and not realize it.

Athletes who participate in contact sports such as football and martial arts can receive multiple concussions throughout their life, leading to a syndrome called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Long associated with boxing, CTE is a progressive disease occurring in people who have had multiple concussions.

According to the Brain Injury Research Institute (BIRI), CTE causes the brain to deteriorate, with changes in mass occurring in different areas of the brain. Some areas of the brain shrink, while others grow due to an increase of tau protein, which can interfere with brain functioning.

BIRI also warns diagnosing CTE is difficult, as its symptoms can be mistaken for aging, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. It can be easy to assume CTE is chiefly a late-in-life risk for older, lifetime athletes, but this is a mistake – a recent study concussions received while young are just as problematic.

Young people and concussions

In the study, researchers found that the brains of the children who had concussions showed “subtle yet pervasive” attention and thinking skill disruptions. In a HealthDay article on the study, Christopher Giza, M.D. said while children usually recover from concussions, protecting them from further head injury is very important.

Some medical professionals go much further. Bennet Omalu, M.D., the physician who first found signs of CTE in professional football players and the subject of the recent film “Concussion,” wrote a 2015 editorial in the New York Times warning parents that concussions received in youth can pave the way for memory loss, depression and drug and alcohol abuse later in life.

Sports are important for children – they teach healthy competition, teamwork and help self-esteem. However, paying attention to performance on the field alone is a mistake. Parents have to be aware of their athlete’s physical – and mental – health.

White River Academy’s therapeutic boarding school for boys aged 12 to 17 helps them reach their full potential. For more information about our programs for mental health and substance abuse treatment, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. 

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