When we think of head injuries in high school sports, your brain probably immediately goes to the male football player. This makes sense on the surface, but even though they wear helmets to help protect their head during collisions, football is hardly far and away the most dangerous sport in terms of head injuries. According to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that girls who played high school soccer had nearly the same risk for concussions as male high school football players.
Moreover, concussion rates were actually higher among girls than boys in every high school sport, which has us asking the question, “why are so many girls suffering concussions in high school sports, and what’s contributing to the gender gap in concussions among high school athletes?”
Concussions in High School Athletes
Recent data from the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance took a look at nearly 10,000 concussions in high school sports. Although boys’ football led the way with 10.2 concussions per every 10,000 practice and game hours, girls’ soccer came in at a close second, with 8.4 per 10,000. But the more interesting fact was that in boys’ soccer, concussions were only observed at a rate of 3.5 per 10,000, less than half the rate of girls’ soccer.
So why are women more vulnerable to head injuries in certain sports? We wish we had the answers, but it appears that the jury is still out. That being said, there are several theories that seek to provide context for the data we are seeing. On a biological level, some medical experts say that differences in neck musculature means that high school girls are more likely to suffer head injuries than their male counterparts because of less-developed neck muscles. These muscles can help limit head movement during impact, but muscle structure alone wouldn’t explain such a stark difference. Others suggest that hormones and gender differences in blood flow to the brain contribute to this difference, but there’s little clinical evidence to back up these theories.
There are other, non-biological reasons as well. Some researchers simply believe that high school girls are more likely to report their symptoms and thus have their concussions documented for medical purposes. Others believe parents may also play a role in the gender differences in reporting by encouraging their sons to be tough and to downplay injuries. Now that more parents, coaches and players are being better educated on the risk of head injuries, we may see a shift in how concussions go reported if these theories in fact hold water.
A final theory on why girls suffer more concussions than boys is because they are trained differently to prepare for contact in their sport. Football, hockey and lacrosse all allow checking and tackling, but such contact isn’t always legal in girl sports. This means women may not be properly coached to learn how to avoid or take hits, and this lack of preparation could lead to more concussions when collisions occur.
Regardless of the reason behind the phenomenon, we also have evidence that suggests that it takes longer for a girl to recover from a concussion than a boy. Researchers believe that this may be due to the fact that since girls’ sports are generally considered less risky, schools may provide less sideline care than they do for male-dominated sports that are considered higher risk. This can lead to a concussion going undiagnosed or a much later diagnosis, which can lead symptoms to persist for longer than if it had been correctly identified in the first place.
Now that we’re waking up to the dangers of concussions in sports, it’s time to turn our attention to the gender gap in concussion rates. Football gets all the attention, but girls’ soccer is causing millions of head injuries each year as well. We need to find a way to reverse this growing trend. For help with a concussion or head injury, turn to Dr. Chang’s office for a diagnosis and treatment plan.