Ongoing research continues to reveal that gender may actually be a risk factor for injury and/or influence injury severity when it comes to concussion. Female athletes suffer more concussions than men in the sports that both play, with an injury rate 50 percent higher. Boys and girls play by the same rules, using the same equipment, on the same fields, yet girls have higher concussion rates than boys.
Many researchers are actively working to help determine why. Below are some interesting findings that are worthy of note.
Physiology is the first big factor. Girls’ neck and torso muscles are formed differently and are simply not able to handle forces as well as males. On average, women have shorter and thinner necks than men and approximately 50 percent less neck strength. In general, that means females have smaller heads, hence less of a buffer against anything their heads might hit, whether it’s a ball, another player’s body or the ground. Biomechanically girls’ skulls experience greater acceleration when their bodies whiplash and often it’s that motion that jars their brain and leads to a concussion.
This begs the questions - Do we need to make protective equipment, strengthening exercises, training techniques and game strategies different for girls than boys? Are we taking into consideration the very basic design of their bodies as they play?
Now I know that some of you are gasping and thinking. “Women have fought hard for equality and competitive respect on the field for so many years, I can’t believe you are saying this,” but the reality is women ARE built different. Maybe they need to play different. I’m not implying women need to play less aggressively or be less competitive. I’m saying we need to be honest with ourselves about the biological realities and do everything we can to protect our girls from harm.
The sad truth is that many sports advocates have resisted gender-focused research related to concussion because they don’t want any implication that girls are weaker than boys. But, research continues to unveil realities that we all need to take seriously like - once concussed, girls are more symptomatic than males; they take longer to recover; and their symptoms are often more subtle and more easily missed or attributed to other causes than concussion.
The good news is that girls are more likely to report symptoms when they do suspect something is wrong. Unfortunately studies show that their reporting of symptoms is often not taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Culturally girls are believed to be more dramatic and over-emotional. They are more likely to be given a “shake it off” attitude even more than boys. Hence, all too often, concussions in women are not diagnosed and treated with the same diligence as males and it’s setting our girls up for a worse result.
Studies also show that we aren’t doing as good of a job educating our girls about concussion. Since women and girls are less educated about female brain injury, many of them are not prepared to cope with more severe symptoms and often have unrealistic expectations of recovery time.
Despite the growing evidence that females are built and affected differently when concussed, the sport and medical communities have yet to develop any female-specific medical guidelines, return to school/play/work protocols or education resources designed for women. Concussions can no longer be treated with a one-size-fits-all approach. Change is coming, but it takes time. For now, educate yourself and always seek the care of true concussion specialists when concussion strikes.