September 21, 2022

Communication problems after concussion can cause wide-reaching issues for youth

Jessica Harasym. Photo submitted.

In Alberta, youth between the ages of 10 and 24 have the highest rates of concussion, most commonly from falls, sports and motor vehicle accidents. For most, it takes two to four weeks to recover, but 30 per cent experience lingering symptoms, including communication challenges.

“Any aspect of a young person’s communication—how they speak, listen and understand, read, write and interact with others socially—can be affected by a concussion,” explains Jessica Harasym, a speech-language pathologist and PhD candidate in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. 

Symptoms like dizziness, headaches and fatigue can make it challenging to follow conversations, while slowed thinking, difficulty recalling words or stuttering can make it difficult to respond. Auditory comprehension and memory problems can interfere with recalling words or remembering details from a conversation or recommendations from a health-care provider. For some, reading and writing can be difficult, making it harder to engage with friends through text messages or complete schoolwork. The extent to which these communication difficulties impact the lives of young people with concussions hasn’t been well studied.

With support from the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation, Harasym has undertaken a qualitative research study to better understand the experiences of these young people. Taking a socio-cultural approach, she conducted three rounds of interviews with five youth between the ages of 16 and 24, as well as some family members. Youth were also invited to share creative work representing aspects of life after concussion and submitted poetry, photographs, artwork and other forms of expression. “We were given access to very personal stories of the youth’s recovery and adaptation,” she says. 

Harasym, who conducted the research under the supervision of Shanon Phelan and Douglas Gross, is now in the process of analyzing the data. Her preliminary findings indicated that the youth in her study adjusted the ways in which they communicated with others during their daily activities. For example, when youth struggled with aspects of their physical environments (such as bright lights or noise in a classroom), they had fewer interactions with peers and felt a diminished sense of community. Respondents also reported experiencing changes in their relationships and feeling differently about themselves as a result of the concussion’s impact on how they communicated. 

“Youth are already coping with many pressures, uncertainty and transitions. They rely on their communication skills to demonstrate what they know and what they can do,” she says. Teens and young adults are starting and finishing school, holding jobs, beginning careers and embarking on new relationships. A number of participants in her study were thrown off course after their concussions, needing to temporarily pause some activities or drastically alter daily routines.

She looks forward to sharing the complete results with those recovering from concussions, and with healthcare providers, in the hopes of helping young people who find themselves struggling with concussion symptoms during their formative years. Harasym also hopes her work will increase awareness of the role of speech pathology in concussion treatment. Many aren’t aware that speech pathologists can help with communication challenges caused by concussions. 

“Part of my desire to do this work is to increase awareness that the role of speech-language pathologists extends beyond the delivery of speech and language interventions. Providing individualized services to maximize a person’s participation in daily communication activities is a foundational part of our discipline,” she says.

Harasym’s graduate studentship award has been funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.