Cognitive complaints after mild traumatic brain injury: things are not always what they seem

Maja Stulemeijer, Pieter E Vos, Gijs Bleijenberg, Sieberen P van der Werf
Journal of Psychosomatic Research 2007, 63 (6): 637-45

OBJECTIVE: To compare nonreferred, emergency department (ED)-admitted mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) patients with and without self-reported cognitive complaints on (1) demographic variables and injury characteristics; (2) neuropsychological test performance; (3) 12-day self-monitoring of perceived cognitive problems; and (4) emotional distress, physical functioning, and personality.

METHODS: (Neuro)psychological assessment was carried out 6 months post-injury in 79 patients out of a cohort of 618 consecutive MTBI patients aged 18-60, who attended the ED of our level I trauma centre. Cognitive complaints were assessed with the Rivermead Postconcussional Symptoms Questionnaire (RPSQ). In addition, patients monitored concentration problems and forgetfulness during 12 consecutive days.

RESULTS: Self-reported cognitive complaints were reported by 39% of the patients. These complaints were strongly related to lower educational levels, emotional distress, personality, and poorer physical functioning (especially fatigue) but not to injury characteristics. Severity of self-reported cognitive complaints was neither associated with the patients' daily observations of cognitive problems nor with outcome on a range of neuropsychological tests.

CONCLUSION: Self-reported cognitive complaints were more strongly related to premorbid traits and physical and emotional state factors than to actual cognitive impairments. In line with previous work, this suggests that treatment of emotional distress and fatigue may also reduce cognitive complaints. Cognitive outcome assessment of symptomatic MTBI patients should not be restricted to checklist ratings only, but also include a (neuro)psychological screening. In addition, daily monitoring of complaints is a useful method to gather information about the frequency and pattern of cognitive problems in daily life.

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