Dealing With Post-Injury Depression

Kenny McKinley was only 23 years old, and had already had considerable success in the National Football League as a wide receiver, when in 2010, he took his own life following a knee injury.

The Denver Broncos selected the University of South Carolina standout in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He played in eight games that season, mostly on special teams, until a December knee injury prematurely ended his season. The following September, authorities found Mr. McKinley dead after an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Investigators from the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office later confirmed the suicide in a detailed report. They concluded that Mr. McKinley had been despondent over gambling debts, but mostly over his injury. He had told friends that he was unsure what he would do without football, and had expressed suicidal thoughts.

In 2012, Tennessee Titans player O.J. Murdock, who was Mr. McKinley’s freshman roommate at South Carolina, also committed suicide under almost identical circumstances (a serious injury and personal problems).

Injury Depression and You

Obviously, not all stories end up like this one, typically because most people who sustain fitness injuries do not center their lives around that particular sport. But the McKinley saga does highlight an area of injury recovery that often gets little press, viz, the psychological impact.

Some people get depressed because they miss the social interaction that comes from being part of the team, others slip into depression because their bodies are not releasing as many endorphins, and the list goes on. All injuries are different, but some of the typical psychological symptoms include:

  • Isolation,
  • Sadness,
  • Irritation,
  • Frustration,
  • Anger,
  • Disengagement, and
  • Lack of motivation.

It’s important to not only be aware of these symptoms yourself, but also to educate friends, spouses, family members, and others who spend lots of time with you, so they may understand that you will not be the same person during injury recovery that you were before.

Speeding Psychological Recovery

One of the best ways to get your old emotional self back is to get your old physical fitness or sports routine back in place as quickly as possible, because the less time you spend convalescing, the faster the depression and other effects will dissipate. The RICE method has been proven effective when dealing with knee injuries, groin pulls, muscle strains, shin splints, and a host of other fitness/sports injuries.

  • Rest: Use the injured muscle as little as possible for the amount of time that your doctor or team trainer instructs you. This information is also available on the Internet, but be sure and understand that these items are not case-specific.
  • Ice: Cold therapy is an analgesic (mild pain reliever) and it also suppresses inflammation. Ice the injured area continuously for about twenty minutes at a time each day. If you use a commercial ice pack, be sure it does not warm up too quickly.
  • Compression: Much like ice, compression serves a dual purpose as well. It reduces swelling and also supports that part of the body until the muscle heals. There are a number of good calf braces and other compression devices.
  • Elevation: Keep the injured area above your heart whenever you are sitting or lying down, and in the first week or two, you should be sitting or lying down a lot.

Some people put a P in front of the RICE for pain reliever. If you take an additional analgesic or opioid pain reliever, remember that the goal is to take the edge off and not to vanquish the discomfort altogether, because that attitude might lead to painkiller addiction. Furthermore, unrealistic expectations like this one may make the depression worse instead of better.

Things to Remember

“Rest” does not necessarily mean bedrest, because many injured people can cross train during rehabilitation. For example, many runners temporarily take up swimming or biking. The physical exercise releases endorphins, which give the person a sense of well-being that counteracts, at least to some extent, injury-related depression.

Here are a few other things to do:

  • Honestly look at any risk factors for worsening depression. Remember that the two football players mentioned above both had personal problems in addition to a serious sports injury? If you have such issues, you are at a greater risk for serious depression, so be ready.
  • Watch for trouble signs. For example, many injured athletes do not eat as much, perhaps because they do not feel as hungry or perhaps because they do not feel like they “deserve” to eat. Depending on the individual, such behavior could indicate that an eating disorder is beginning to develop.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for help. You wouldn’t dream of facing an ACL tear on your own, and isn’t your psychological well-being a lot more important than your knee?

All these things require active communication, either with other people or with yourself, so resist the temptation to hang out in the training room or living room and shut other people out. You will get through this, and it is within your power to get through it quickly.

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