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Game Changer: The Psychological Impact of a Physical Injury

January 25, 2022
A knee with a knee brace.

By Bobby Weisenberger, MS, ATC, PES
MUSC Health Sports Medicine

When dealing with sports injuries it's easy to just focus all of our efforts on the specific injury site. We can get focused on things like inflammation, range of motion, and strength, and completely disregard how the injury may affect the athlete mentally.

Injuries can take an athlete out of their sport for a considerable amount of time. This loss of time may cause an athlete to become depressed and disengaged in their rehab. Kellezi, et al. (2017) found that "depression 1-month post-injury is an important predictor of recovery, but other factors, especially pain and nights spent in hospital, also predict recovery." While most of our athletes don't spend a lot of nights in hospitals, they do spend a lot of time away from the sport they love.

When working with athletes, it's important to treat the whole athlete and not just a specific injury or symptom. We need to recognize how the injury is affecting the athlete mentally as well as physically. All athletes are different and will have a different emotional response to injuries. While some will rise to the challenge to come back stronger than before, others will experience anxiety, frustration, and depression. We need to recognize how our athletes are coping with the injury during our evaluations. Avoid asking questions like "How is your knee feeling today" and instead use questions like "How are you feeling today." This will likely open up a dialog with the athlete, and help you assess how the athlete is coping with their injury or rehab. We can help the athlete better cope with injury. Provide education about the injury and the good outcomes, introduce possible coping strategies like listening to music, watching tv, or playing video games. Encourage them to continue to still be part of the team if possible or spend time with family/friends.

Familiarize yourself with signs of depression and look for them in your athlete. Look for warning signs like a persistent low mood, loss of interest, feelings of worthlessness, poor concentration, and thoughts of harming themselves. If you recognize any worsening signs of depression refer them to a mental health professional for psychological evaluation.