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    Increasing rates of sport-related concussion (SRC) in youth impose a significant burden on public health systems and the lives of young athletes. Accurate prediction for those likely to develop persistent post-concussion symptomology (PPCS) using a fluid biomarker, reflecting both acute injury and recovery processes, would provide the opportunity for early intervention. Cortisol, a stress hormone released through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis following injury, may provide a missing physiological link to clinical recovery. This cohort study investigated the change in saliva cortisol following SRC and the association between cortisol and symptom burden in pediatric ice hockey players. Further, the association between cortisol levels and medical clearance to return to play was explored. In total, cortisol samples from 233 players were included; 165 athletes (23.6% female) provided pre-injury saliva and 68 athletes (19.1% female) provided post-SRC saliva samples for cortisol analysis. Quantile (median) regressions were used to compare cortisol between pre-injury and post-SRC groups, and the association between total symptoms (/22) and symptom severity scores (/132) reported on the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT)3/SCAT5 and post-SRC cortisol (adjusting for age, sex, history of concussion, and time from injury to sample collection). Results demonstrated significantly lower saliva cortisol in post-SRC athletes compared with the pre-injury group (β = -0.62, 95% confidence interval [CI; -1.08, -0.16], p = 0.009). Post-SRC cortisol was not significantly associated with the SCAT3/SCAT5 symptom totals or symptom severity scores; however, females were found to report more symptoms (β = 6.95, 95% CI [0.35, 13.55], p = 0.040) and greater symptom severity (β = 23.87, 95% CI [9.58, 38.15], p = 0.002) compared with males. Exploratory time-to-event analysis revealed a point estimate suggesting a potential association between low cortisol levels and days to medical clearance to return to play. Although preliminary, these findings suggest that the HPA axis may be dysregulated post-SRC. Further, our exploratory analysis and case presentation of post-injury outliers highlight the need to further research cortisol as a prognostic biomarker to inform individualized sex-specific care after SRC.


    Jason Tabor, Parker La, Gregory Kline, Meng Wang, Stephan Bonfield, Matthew Machan, Katherine Wynne-Edwards, Carolyn Emery, Chantel Debert. Saliva Cortisol as a Biomarker of Injury in Youth Sport-Related Concussion. Journal of neurotrauma. 2023 Feb;40(3-4):296-308

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    PMID: 35906800

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