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A recent study of soccer players found that women have a harder time coming back from a concussion (traumatic brain injury) than men. And they are more at risk for further injury if they return to their sport too soon.

Even when men and women play the same sport, women have a harder time recovering from head injuries than men, a recent study of soccer players finds.

Publishing their findings in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, a group of research kinesiologists at Michigan State University led by Dr. Tracey Covassin report that

women athletes exhibit more symptoms of brain injury after a sports-related concussion than men, specifically more problems with both verbal and visual memory, more problems with headache, and more problems with sleep, vision, and fatigue.

The researchers found that the differences between men and women could not be explained by body mass index, that is, despite the fact that a larger body enables the brain to stable during a harder blow, there were differences between the sexes that cannot be explained by size alone.

Just How Big a Problem Is Concussion In Young Athletes?

Americans have been seeing a retinue of brain injured (American-style) football players in the news, most of the retired players now in the 30's to 50's, but the overwhelming majority of concussions do not occur in professional sports. 

Each year, Dr. Covassin and her colleagues estimate, between 1.6 and 3 million Americans receive traumatic head injuries resulting in concussion, most of them occurring in teenagers.

Other epidemiologists estimate that the risk of a high school aged player's having a concussion in the USA is (for readers outside the United States, the game the rest of the world calls "football" Americans call "soccer") :

  • 1 time in 1600 games for boys playing (American) football.
  • 1 time in 4000 matches for boys' wrestling.
  • 1 time in 5500 matches for boys' soccer.
  • 1 time in 4000 matches for girls' soccer (that is, girls are more likely than boys to suffer concussions when playing soccer).
  • 1 time in 9000 games for boys' basketball, and
  • 1 time in 11,000 games for girls' basketball.

Overall, concussions don't happen all that often--but kids play lots of sports. Among adults, professional boxing and roller derby are the sports most likely to result in brain injuries to both men and women who play them.

But in kids, boys are most likely to suffer concussions in football and girls are most likely to suffer concussions in soccer.

Not Usually a TKO

Concussions don't usually manifest themselves as a TKO, a technical knockout, as they do in boxing.

A concussion may not be immediately recognized at all, because the initial symptoms may be subtle. A teen who has suffered a traumatic brain injury on the field or on the court may display:

  • A blank look, or confusion.
  • Unusual mood swings, especially as the athlete tries to compensate for confusion.
  • Double vision or blurred vision, seeing stars.
  • Slower reaction times, slower reflexes.
  • Pretraumatic (retrograde) and/or posttraumatic (antegrade) amnesia, with pretraumatic amnesia lasting just a few seconds and posttraumatic amnesia lasting minutes or hours.
  • Vomiting and loss of consciousness, both of which are signs of significant brain injury requiring emergency medical treatment.

But because athletes want to keep on playing, they tend to mask minor symptoms, so that a concussion may not be recognized.

But second, third, and later concussions do much more damage.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Covassin T, Elbin RJ, Bleecker A, Lipchik A, Kontos AP. Are There Differences in Neurocognitive Function and Symptoms Between Male and Female Soccer Players After Concussions? Am J Sports Med. 2013 Nov 6. [Epub ahead of print].
  • Covassin T, Elbin RJ. The female athlete: the role of gender in the assessment and management of sport-related concussion. Clin Sports Med. 2011 Jan.30(1):125-31, x. doi: 10.1016/j.csm.2010.08.001.
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