CHOC Children’s Grand Rounds Video: Cognitive Side to Mental Health and the Psychology Behind Concussions

A concussion or mild traumatic brain injury is defined as a transient neurologic change resulting from a biomechanical impact to the head. Given this broad definition, it is not surprising that concussion represents the most common type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Concussions can be complicated and multifaceted, as patients usually present with various combinations of neurologic, cognitive and psychiatric symptoms, Drs. Sharief Taraman and Jonathan Romain said in a recent grand rounds presentation at CHOC Children’s.

Adolescents represent a commonly seen subgroup within the concussion population, most notably because of their frequent involvement in sports and higher-risk activities. Additionally, when injuries do occur at the high school and college level, the impact velocities tend to be at a higher rate than is seen in younger athletes, potentially resulting in more pronounced concussions. Further complicating the situation is that adolescents tend to have busy schedules and multiple responsibilities throughout the school year (when most concussions occur). Thus, when a concussion is sustained, the student athlete not only needs to deal with the immediate symptoms of the injury, but also the potential for academic and social derailment during the recovery process. Combine these issues with a strong body of literature suggesting adolescents tend to have slower resolution than do adults, and you have the recipe for a very bumpy recovery.

The doctors explain that cognitive symptoms manifest as slower processing speed, feeling foggy, and occasional forgetting or transient confusion.  Psychiatric symptoms often include irritability, liability and sadness. A child may have one or many of these symptoms, although more often these symptoms overlap. The patient and their family may not recognize how persistent symptoms of headache and dizziness, for example, can contribute to memory problems and difficulty concentrating, irritability, and feelings of depression and hopelessness. Children with prolonged symptoms also can feel isolated from their peers while they are sitting out of play and school.

Learn more about CHOC’s Concussion Program.

View previous grand rounds videos.

Mental Health Effects of Concussions on Adolescents and Teens

By Jonathan E. Roman, Ph.D. and Sharief Taraman, M.D.
Pediatric News

A concussion or mild traumatic brain injury is defined as a transient neurologic change resulting from a biomechanical impact to the head. Given this broad definition, it is not surprising that concussion represents the most common type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Concussions can be complicated and multifaceted, as patients usually present with various combinations of neurologic, cognitive and psychiatric Concussion Effectssymptoms.

Fortunately, these injuries tend to have a more favorable outcome than do more severe brain injuries, with the vast majority of patients returning to usual functioning within days to weeks, with time and a guided return-to-activity plan. However, there is a subset of patients whose symptoms persist into what has been loosely defined as postconcussive syndrome. These individuals tend to be the greatest challenge for clinicians, and usually benefit from a multidisciplinary team approach, including neurologists, neuropsychologists, physical therapists, and speech pathologists.

Adolescents represent a commonly seen subgroup within the concussion population, most notably because of their frequent involvement in sports and higher-risk activities. Additionally, when injuries do occur at the high school and college level, the impact velocities tend to be at a higher rate than is seen in younger athletes, potentially resulting in more pronounced concussions. Further complicating the situation is that adolescents tend to have busy schedules and multiple responsibilities throughout the school year (when most concussions occur). Thus, when a concussion is sustained, the student athlete not only needs to deal with the immediate symptoms of the injury, but also the potential for academic and social derailment during the recovery process. Combine these issues with a strong body of literature suggesting adolescents tend to have slower resolution than do adults, and you have the recipe for a very bumpy recovery.

Neurologic symptoms usually present as headache, light and noise sensitivity, dizziness, and balance issues. Cognitive symptoms manifest as slower processing speed, feeling foggy, and occasional forgetting or transient confusion. Psychiatric symptoms often include irritability, lability and sadness. A child may have one or many of these symptoms, although more often these symptoms overlap. The patient and their family may not recognize how persistent symptoms of headache and dizziness, for example, can contributeConcussions Teens to memory problems and difficulty concentrating, irritability, and feelings of depression and hopelessness. Children with prolonged symptoms also can feel isolated from their peers while they are sitting out of play and school.

The treatment strategy for managing the emotional and mental health needs of the adolescent concussion patient is dictated by the underlying etiology. It is reasonable to suspect that irritability, a short fuse, and frequent crying during the first few days following injury are a direct result of neurologic disruption, which are not amenable to reason and behavioral interventions. In these cases, the best treatment is to educate the family that this is a transient neurologic state, while ensuring that the patient is protected from environmental stressors. One analogy that parents and patients find helpful is “weathering the storm,” and with time, these symptoms tend to abate. The key here is to normalize the recovery process and provide parents with a realistic recovery trajectory.

The more challenging patient is the child whose symptoms persist for weeks or develop over time, or, even more complicated, the child who had preexisting known or unknown mental health issues. A common theme in working with TBI patients is that brain injuries tend to exacerbate preexisting conditions. In these cases, good history taking is the foundation for good mental health management.

Key questions include: Is there a preexisting history of learning disability and/or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Are there preexisting or current family stressors? Has the child ever been in therapy before? How much school has the child missed? How has the school responded to the child missing tests and assignments? Is the child being pressured by teachers or coaches to return to activity? The answer to these and other questions will dictate how mental health issues should be addressed.

As a pediatrician, a release to talk with the school can clear up many of the return-to-activity stressors or may help to better understand the contribution of preexisting learning struggles or ADHD. Again, it is particularly important to have an awareness of premorbid history, as head injuries tend to exacerbate or accentuate preexisting symptoms. The full utility of the multidisciplinary team is accentuated in these situations, and a referral to a psychologist familiar with concussion is often the next step. Short-term medication management also may be considered, with additional referral to a psychiatrist for long-term management as necessary.Concussions Teens

Although fairly uncommon, the circumstances of a concussion can result in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or acute stress disorder, particularly when considering that concussions do not have to result in loss of consciousness during the event. It is important to at least screen for PTSD in situations in which there is the strong potential for this (in other words, an event that involved threatened death or serious injury to self or other, was the result of an assault, and resulted in intense fear or horror). Some symptoms to look for include intense psychological distress, recurrent distressing recollection, and frequent nightmares of the event, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and exaggerated startle response, and feelings of detachment from others. If these symptoms are present, a mental health evaluation and treatment would be the next logical step.

Concussion is a relatively common occurrence in adolescence and has received increased interest in recent years. It is important for pediatricians to be aware of the neurologic, cognitive, and psychiatric/emotional symptoms of concussion and how these symptoms often overlap. The management of mental health issues in concussion depends on the stage of recovery, the impact of the concussion on academic and social functions, whether preexisting issues exist, and the circumstances of the injury. In certain situations, mental health symptoms can be headed off in the pediatrician’s office, while more complicated and protracted recoveries necessitate a multidisciplinary team that includes mental health professionals.

Dr. Romain is a neuropsychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Calif., and was the primary author of this commentary. He provides neuropsychological evaluations at the CHOC multidisciplinary concussion clinic. Dr. Taraman is a pediatric neurologist at the hospital. Dr. Romain and Dr. Taraman said they have no relevant financial disclosures.

Originally published on Sept. 3, 2014 in Pediatric News. Republished onto the CHOC Docs Blog with permission from Pediatric News.

Dr. Sharief Taraman Talks with AM830′s Travis Rodgers about Kids, Sports and Concussions

Pediatric Neurologist Dr. Sharief Taraman talks with AM830 radio host Travis Rodgers about Concussions
Pediatric Neurologist Dr. Sharief Taraman talks with AM830 radio host Travis Rodgers in Seacrest Studios at CHOC Children’s

Travis Rodgers, host of the Angels AM830 morning radio show “The Travis Rodgers Show” recently interviewed CHOC Children’s Pediatric Neurologist Dr. Sharief Taraman about concussions in sports, their long term effects, and how children are particularly vulnerable to serious injury. In this interview, Dr. Taraman explains how concussions can happen in any sport, not just football, and how kids (and their parents) need to weigh the risks and benefits before playing contact sports.

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Sports-related concussions in kids and teens are a growing concern among medical and educational professionals, as well as parents.

Newer recommendations are that children and teens should be treated much more conservatively than adults when it comes to concussion. The developing brain is very different from the adult brain in that it is much more likely to manifest symptoms later and have longer term problems when injured, especially if the child is not allowed to rest and recover. Because each concussion and each child is different, care for each child and each concussion must be individualized.

The CHOC Children’s Concussion Program provides specialized services for student athletes with concussions from pediatric concussion experts like Dr. Taraman. The program addresses the multiple needs associated with brain injury while mitigating potential long-term effects. This unique, comprehensive program brings together specialists from a variety of disciplines and helps children and families through every step of the recovery process – from the management of neurological symptoms to addressing school and psychosocial issues.

For concussion consultations – even on nights and weekends – call the dedicated Sports Medicine Program line at (714) 509-4054.