Non-head injuries can influence cognition in athletes


Recently, more and more attention has been focussed on athletes suffering concussions. In a hockey-crazy country like Canada, it’s hard to walk around without hearing about another hockey player who’s suffered a concussion. Notable NHL players that have recently graced the headlines include Sidney Crosby, Chris Pronger, James van Reimsdyk, Sami Salo, Marc Savard, and Nicklas Backstrom. The list of injured stars goes on. Sports-related concussions are common. The symptoms of a concussion can be serious: dizziness, fatigue, and difficulty with agility. They are also known to cause memory loss, difficulty concentrating, slower reactions, and difficulty processing information. But what about non-head injuries? Can they also cause concentration and agility problems for athletes?


U of T researchers Michael Hutchison, Paul Comper, Linda Mainwaring, and Doug Richards published a paper last November that studies the effects that non-head injuries, such as broken ankles or torn ligaments, can have on the brain. In the first study of its kind, Hutchison and his colleagues used computerized tests designed to assess the cognition of concussed athletes and tested three groups of Varsity Blues athletes: concussed athletes, athletes with non-head injuries, and a control group of healthy athletes. The study included a total of 72 athletes, the majority of whom played either football or hockey.


Hutchison and his colleagues hypothesized that decreased mental capability may not be caused by concussions only. They predicted that other factors, such as pain, could distort reasoning and agility.


They found that athletes with non-head injuries performed better in cognitive ability than athletes with concussions, but worse than non-injured athletes. While concussed athletes performed the worst, athletes with non-head injuries didn’t perform much better.


Hutchison and his colleagues speculated why the athletes with non-head injuries performed poorly on tests designed for concussed athletes. Their poor responses could be due to psychological factors, such as frustration about the injury; they might have been bitter and distracted about not being able to train and perform in their capacity as an athlete. If the injury requires long-term healing, the athlete may even develop depression or anxiety, which would lead to worse test results. The researchers also postulated that pain or physical discomfort itself can influence cognition. They emphasize the need for more research into the causes of their results.


Hutchison and his colleagues suggest that results from standardized tests designed for concussed athletes be taken with a grain of salt. The results may be influenced more by the athlete’s state of mind or threshold for pain rather than providing any real insight into the effects of non-head injuries on athletes’ brains.


Nevertheless, the results of this research surely suggest that athletes should be more vigilant about their mental health after an injury—even if the injury isn’t directly to the brain.