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