Women report more concussions than male athletes

By Sports & Health Reporter

The NFL concussion litigation by retired players who sustained lasting injuries has sparked discussion about male athletes and the effects of sustaining a concussion at a young age. However, the sporting world seems to have overlooked female athletes.

In recent weeks, commentators, like The Washington Post’s Marjorie Snyder, have called for greater awareness of the statistical finding that young female athletes are more likely to endure a concussion than male athletes. 

A 2011 study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that female high school sports teams had concussion rates that were similar to or higher than the male sports teams. Researchers gathered data from 25 schools in a large public high school system. All of the schools used an electronic medical record-keeping program and had an athletic trainer available for games and practices where they would electronically record all daily injuries. 

Dr. Andrew Lincoln, lead author of the study and director of the Sports Medicine Research Center for the MedStar Health Research Institute, Maryland, said the most likely driver may be related to differences in skeletal and muscular structure between the sexes. For instance, men’s frames are generally larger than women’s, and their skulls have the ability to absorb more of the energy generated by impacts in contact sports.

Elena Bernstein, a sophomore biology major at the University of Illinois at Chicago and member of the women’s soccer team, said she experienced her first minor concussion while playing in an exhibition game last fall.

“Everyone is kind of different and [concussions] affect people in many different ways,” Bernstein said. “I went up for a header, the ball hit my head and I just hit it wrong. My positioning was wrong and it just messed me up. I was out for a solid month and a week.”

Later that evening, Bernstein developed a headache but said she thought it may have been caused by dehydration due to the hot weather. The morning following the game, she woke up experiencing problems with her vision.

“My vision didn’t go blurry, but I started seeing random spots,” Bernstein said. “Then right after, my left side—from my arm to about my left calf down— started to tingle.” 

Bernstein said even upon returning to play, she continued to experience concussion-related symptoms, such as sensitivity to light, difficulty focusing in classes and numbness on her left, which prohibited her from practicing soccer with full contact. Bernstein said she was skeptical that she had sustained serious head trauma.

“I have been playing soccer since I was 11 and I have done many, many headers throughout the years—and even had some collisions—but nothing to the extreme where I needed to get out of the game,” Bernstein said. “My coaches play soccer, too, so either they have had concussions or know their fair share of people who have.”

Jeff Mjaanes, director of the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic at Rush University Medical Center, said it has been well established by researchers that, in general, girls sustain concussions at a higher rate than boys. 

“Girls soccer in general has a higher rate of concussions than boys soccer,” Mjaanes said. “Part of the challenge here is if an athlete is not honest about their symptoms, we may miss concussions.”

Mjaanes said about 85 percent of concussions may go undiagnosed because of  athletes being untruthful about their injury symptoms.

According to Mjaanes there is reason to believe female athletes are more likely to report symptoms of injuries that would remove them from a game than male athletes. This could be one contributing factor to the statistical difference between male and female athletes reflected in the research. 

“Some women and girls might be more in tune with their body, and so they recognize symptoms that might be different and might be more likely to say something, and that is also a possibility,” Mjaanes said. “In general [though,] we don’t know specifically why this difference occurs.”