Are women and girls at higher risk for concussion?
Concussions are a common sports injury, ranging from fairly mild to very severe. While we have offered some general tips on preventing sports injuries aimed both at adults and at teens involved in sports through school or extracurricular teams, one thing that hasn’t been addressed is the potential disparity in concussions between male and female athletes. Are women and girls at higher risk for concussion?
Ashlee Gregory, DPT, answered common questions on how concussions are different in women, why women and girls are at a higher risk for concussion in sports and more.
Why are women and girls at higher risk for concussion while playing sports?
“There isn’t a hard-and-fast, one hundred percent concrete answer to this question,” said Gregory. “Researchers are still working to fully understand just why women and girls are at a higher risk for concussions, but there are some theories that can help to explain it.”
One theory is that the higher risk is based in biology. Women and girls have smaller axons (or nerves), making them more prone to stretch injuries. Women also tend to have a shorter neck dimension, less head mass, a narrow neck girth and less neck strength overall. Combined with a generally lower ability to tolerate head impacts and a lower threshold for brain injuries, this ups the risk for more serious injuries.
Another theory suggests that levels of progesterone at the time of injury can predict concussion risk. Progesterone levels change throughout the menstrual cycle, so the amount in a woman’s body may change during different days of the month.
Finally, in one more culturally based theory, women and girls may simply be more likely to report symptoms of concussions than men. This would result in it seeming like concussions happen to women more often, when really, it’s that they are just being reported more.
How are concussions different in women and girls?
“Typically, women report more symptoms and have worse clinical outcomes with concussions. They may note slower reaction times, a greater cognitive decline and require a longer period of rest and recovery time before returning to play,” said Gregory.
Rates of concussions are different between female athletes and male athletes, too. Gregory noted that in high school sport related concussions, the highest rate of occurrence is in girls’ soccer, while at the collegiate level, the highest occurrence is in women’s ice hockey and soccer. Female-dominated sports, like cheerleading, report a higher rate of concussions among athletes as well.
What are the signs of concussion in women and girls?
“Women experience the same symptoms of concussion or brain injury as men,” said Gregory. “Headache, dizziness, impaired concentration, mood changes, fatigue, drowsiness, balance problems, light sensitivity and difficulty with memory are all common symptoms across the board. The main difference is that women and girls tend to report a higher number of symptoms.”
How can female athletes protect themselves against concussion?
Like men, female athletes should wear protective equipment when applicable. Women or girls who occupy positions with a higher risk for concussions should be closely watched and checked for signs of injury. Contact should be limited as much as possible at practice.
Finally, getting enough sleep can have a positive effect in reducing risk for concussions, as well.
How do you know when you are ready to return to sports or daily activities?
“Similar to men, return to school or work should happen before any return to sports,” said Gregory. “However, each person’s recovery is unique. Physical and Occupational therapists who specialize in Concussion care can help these athletes to gradually reintroduce triggers, improving recovery overall and potentially reducing time spend recovering.”
Treatment with a physical therapist /occupational therapist might include:
- Exertion testing, where the athlete will gradually increase their heart rate with exercise while they are monitored for symptoms.
- Improvement of vision comfort and the ability to tolerate noise while working on schoolwork or tasks related to their job.
- Assessment of recovery timeline and when the athlete can receive a final clearance to return to playing their sport.
You can find more information on concussions, including symptoms, how to prevent them and what to do if you or a loved one thinks they might have a concussion, right here on Flourish.
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