Psychosomatic symptoms -- or the pain and aches triggered by mental distress -- experienced by an athlete before going through a head injury may prolong his or her recovery time, a new study suggests.

Led by Lindsay Nelson of Medical College of Wisconsin, researchers examined more than 120 athletes in high school and college who have had concussions.

About 80 percent of the participants were male. Nearly two-thirds of the concussions occurred during football; a quarter happened during soccer; while the remaining percentage occurred during wrestling, lacrosse, hockey, field hockey, and rugby.

For most of the participants, symptoms of concussion lasted an average of five days, but researchers found that those who had psychosomatic symptoms before the head injury took longer time to recover.

A majority of the injured athletes with psychosomatic symptoms recovered within about 20 days. On the other hand, most of the injured athletes with no psychosomatic history got better in approximately 10 days.

Nelson and her colleagues discovered that the most crucial factor in recovery speed was how severe the concussion symptoms were after the injury.

Those with the most serious symptoms, including balance problems and headaches, recovered more slowly than those with less serious signs.

Although the study found an association between longer injury recovery and psychosomatic stress, it was not designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

Nelson said somatic complaints before an injury play a role by either enhancing how an athlete experiences the concussion or affecting their ability to report post-concussive symptoms.

She said that because athletes in the study were generally healthy in terms of physical and psychological factors, the report emphasizes the important role that psychosomatic symptoms could play in a person's recovery.

"Our hope is our study will lead to further research," said Nelson, adding that identifying athletes who are at risk for prolonged recovery is important so experts could develop early interventions and improve outcomes for concussion patients.

Previous studies have revealed that athletes who have suffered from a head injury may experience less blood flow in their brain for eight days even after the concussion symptoms subside.

Another study has found that head injuries among athletes have been linked to increased suicide risk later in life.

Athletes in the National Football League suffer an average 8.1 cases of concussion throughout their entire career, experts added.

Photo: Dani Jace | Flickr

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