Sports injuries, especially concussions, are a hot topic in professional and collegiate sports these days. Most of the attention is on male athletes, especially football players.
The possibility of serious brain damage resulting from helmet hits to the head has led to changes in the way the game is played, as well as a heightened emphasis in sports medicine on treating concussive injuries.
But the new emphasis, while welcome, is also heavily skewed. Female athletes, it turns out, are far more susceptible to severe head injuries, including concussions, than men are.
In a study conducted at Columbia University in 2017, the male concussion rate for all athletic sports was found to be at 14%. However, the female rate was 23%, about 60% higher.
This finding, while shocking to some, is hardly new. In fact, there has been almost decade of solid research documenting this same disparity, yet the field of sports medicine has yet to catch up.
In part, the problem is due to the lesser stature of female sports relative to male sports.
Historically, there’s been more money and media attention invested in male sports activities, and therefore, more concern over highly- prized male athletes whose performance and health status can make or break a professional sports team or college sports program.
But there’s also a deep-seated gender bias that persists even as female sports and their athletes become increasingly prominent.
Women’s sports is still viewed as lighter and less intensely competitive than male sports, and therefore, the assumption persists that injuries, at least severe injuries, are much less likely to occur.
Some of the most vulnerable female athletes are soccer players, especially at the high school level.
A sample of injury data from 2005 to 2015 from the High School Reporting Information Online injury surveillance system found that the concussion rate was higher in girls’ soccer than boys’ football, and during the 2014-2015 school year concussions were more common in girls’ soccer than any other sport.
There is some evidence that the increased rate reported for girls may be due, in part, to greater awareness and reporting of their injuries. During the period under review, many schools had implemented traumatic brain injury (TBI) protocols in accordance with new state laws designed to protect all athletes. At the same time, there’s little question that girls are getting injured at a higher rate than boys.
Some researchers attribute the higher female concussion rate to anatomical differences. On average, a girl’s head mass is smaller and her neck muscles weaker than comparable physical features in boys. As a result, the concussive impact of a soccer “header,” for example, is likely to be considerably greater,
Another factor is the availability of proper protective gear. Sports programs, especially at schools with limited resources, may not provide the same quality gear to their girls’ soccer teams that the boys’ teams receive.
Head injuries to adolescent athletes are especially concerning because adolescents have less cognitive reserve (and therefore, resistance to brain damage) than adults.
A concussion places the victim at greater risk for more severe symptoms, including headaches, memory loss, confusion and dizziness as well as a prolonged recovery period.
Women’s health advocates are becoming increasingly vocal about the need for greater medical and media attention on the plight of female athletes as well as stronger prevention and treatment protocols.
Part of the increased attention may be due to heightened publicity over recent high level concussive injuries to professional soccer players.
In 2013, Abby Wambach of the New York Flash suffered a debilitating head injury after twice heading a soccer ball estimated to be traveling at 60 miles per. hour.
After the first header, Wambach “collapsed lifelessly and rolled into a fetal position,” according to subsequent injury report. She remained there for a full 30 seconds.
At the conclusion of the game, Wambach was unable to stand on her own and needed help being escorted off the field
Eleven days later, the National Women’s Soccer League admitted that Wambach’s injury “wasn’t handled as we should have handled it.”
In March 2016, Wambach announced that she planned to donate her brain for concussion research after she dies. Several other players, including former American soccer star, Brandi Chastain, have made similar pledges.
Funding to address concussions in soccer and other sports is also on the rise, but the gender disparity remains. In 2018, the National Football League set aside $35 million to study sports concussions suffered by its male players.
Much smaller grants are being made to address women’s sports concussions, according to Pink Concussion, a recently formed non-profit education group that publicizes injuries to women in soccer and other sports, including softball and ice hockey.