Abstract: Isolated but Overstimulated: Recovery Paradox for Athletes with Post-Concussion Syndrome

◆ Joseph McGlynn, University of North Texas

Concussions present a rising health concern in youth sports. Interdisciplinary perspectives are needed to understand concussions experiences, as the issue of athlete concussions places strain on individuals, families, and the larger health care system. An estimated 3 million concussions occur each year in youth sport and recreation settings (DePadilla, Miller, Jones, Peterson, & Breiding, 2018). The CDC estimates 283,000 emergency room visits each year to treat adolescent traumatic brain injuries (Sarmiento et al., 2019). Concussions sustained at young ages can have lasting negative effects on cognition, impacting athletes’ physical, mental, and social health (Colvin et al., 2009).

Enduring a concussion is a stressful process for athletes (Cassilo & Sanderson, 2019), complicated by the need for the athlete to isolate themselves from social peers to avoid overstimulation of the brain during recovery. Effective communication helps prevent injuries in organizational settings (Real, 2010). To improve health communication on the risks of concussions, it is necessary to understand the quality and characteristics of athlete experiences with post-concussion syndrome.

This study examined athletes’ described experiences of dealing with concussions and the effects of post-concussion syndrome. Analyzing online narratives of athletes’ experiences with concussions (N = 44), we used a social support theory framework to identify and understand key support factors that affect athlete recovery from PCS. We also sought to identity athletes’ specific support needs to promote health outcomes. Thematic analysis indicated athletes endure physical, emotional, and social pain during recovery.

During concussion recovery, athletes reported needing ample social support from family, teammates, and coaches. However, athletes also reported the concussions required the avoidance of stimulation to aid recovery. The requirement of isolation to avoid stimulation presents a paradox for athletes seeking to recover from their injuries. They desired support from important peers, but require isolation to avoid setbacks in recovery. Athletes reported the negative effects of overstimulation on their recovery to health from concussions.

Problematic conditions related to athletes’ recovery from post-concussion syndrome included themes of isolated but overstimulated, difficulties communicating invisible symptoms, lack of connection with teammates and coaches, and loss of identity during recovery. The results of the current study contribute knowledge to theories of social support and risk communication. Findings inform guidelines for the effective communication of risks of concussions in sport settings. Theoretical implications, practical applications, and future directions are discussed in the context of interdisciplinary health communication research and practice.