Critical to Care for Athletes Physically and Psychologically After an Injury

By Allison Serraro

Athletic trainers are health care professionals that provide preventative services, emergency care, clinical diagnosis, therapeutic intervention and rehabilitation of injuries and medical conditions.

Although athletic trainers primarily provide rehabilitation and therapeutic interventions for physical injuries, they are also faced with the emotional and psychological stress that many athletes experience upon sustaining an injury.

Student athletes experience high levels of stress due to rigorous academic and athletic demands, competitive pressures and public scrutiny.  They are also expected to perform at high levels of intensity multiple days a week throughout the year. These physical demands place high levels of stress on the body, which increases muscle tension and increases an athlete’s risk of injury. Once an athlete is injured, other stressors in their life may become magnified.

Although exercise promotes physical and mental health and well-being, excessive amounts of high-intensity exercise can have detrimental effects. Negative psychological responses to injury can trigger severe mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use and suicidal ideation.

Anxiety and depression share common symptoms including fatigue, impaired concentration, irritability, sleep disturbance, nervousness, worry and restlessness.  These psychiatric disorders can negatively affect even elite athletes. It was previously thought that athletes should be tough and “suck it up.” This prevented many of them from speaking up and seeking the help they needed.

Depression and anxiety can have detrimental effects on the quality and speed of an athlete’s rehabilitation process, and more importantly, their quality of life. Therefore, when an athlete sustains an injury, it is important to create a rehabilitation program that includes psychosocial strategies to ensure the he or she is progressing physically and psychologically. If mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, are not addressed properly during rehabilitation, the resulting frustration and anger may affect the athlete’s behavior and attitude during rehabilitation.

Psychological strategies such as goal setting, meditation, imagery, positive self-talk and relaxation strategies have shown to be beneficial tools for reducing anxiety, stress and pain and increasing self-efficacy, self-esteem, motivation and rehabilitation adherence.

Although we have made significant improvements through research, technology, medicine and recognition, there is still room for improvement with mental health awareness, prevention, interventions and treatment when athletes recover from sports-related injuries. Recently, more and more professional athletes have shared their experience. Professional athletes such as Kevin Love and Andrew Luck have bravely spoken out about their personal struggles with mental illness, giving younger athletes the hope and confidence to speak up as well.

Athletes have a higher chance of sustaining injuries due to physical demands their bodies undergo. Therefore, it is imperative that the sports medicine team and other health professionals are ready to help an athlete through the rehabilitation process both physically and mentally following an injury.

Allison Serraro is a certified athletic trainer at ProClinix Sports Physical Therapy & Chiropractic in Pleasantville and is also the head athletic trainer at Pleasantville High School. For questions regarding this article, call or e-mail Allison at 914-202-0700 or at


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