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Athletes recovering from injuries can experience depression, anger, denial

When athletes become injured -- particularly competitive athletes -- they often experience a range of emotions that can prolong their recovery and cloud their judgment. Depression, anger and denial are emotions athletes can find themselves dealing with as they work to rejoin their teams or return to top competitive form.

Sports Injury

As if the pain isn't enough -- athletes recovering from injuries can experience a range of emotions, such as depression and anger, as they work to rejoin their teams or regain their competitive edge.

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"Whenever something is taken from you and you don't really have control over that process -- most humans don't respond well to this," said Douglas McKeag, M.D., director of the Center for Sports Medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine. "It's a modified version of the grief process."

Often, for example, patients will show up to appointments angry and unwilling to accept that they are making good progress. Sometimes athletes deny that they are experiencing pain and as a result run or practice through it -- delaying their recovery and increasing the possibility of reinjury. McKeag said he enjoys practicing sports medicine in large part because of the motivation his patients have for returning to their competitive form.

"This motivation can be positive but it could become negative as well," he said.

Douglas McKeag

Douglas McKeag

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McKeag offers these considerations:

  • Recognize the role emotions can play in recovery and work with a physician or health care provider on a reasonable recovery plan.
  • Determine the cause of an injury -- this can be challenging, particularly with back injuries, but important. If the pain subsided simply because of rest, once athletes return to normal activity they risk reinjury because the cause of the injury might not have not been addressed.
  • Most reinjuries occur because the cause of the injury was not determined and the athlete returned to normal activity prematurely.

McKeag also is chair of the Department of Family Medicine.