Recent headlines about sports-related concussions have focused on the guys — pro football players and boxers. Now, neurologists are seeing an even higher risk for female athletes.
We’ve heard about male athletes who experience depression, paranoia, erratic behavior, and signs of early dementia following a series of concussions. But, girls and women engaged in contact sports like cheerleading and soccer are twice as likely as their male counterparts to suffer concussions, according to data collected in Australia.
Among Australian female cricket players, it’s reported that one in three head impacts becomes a concussion. In comparison, one in five impacts results in concussions among male cricket players.
The data also shows that female athletes take one to two days longer than their male counterparts to recover from sports-related head and neck injuries.
While the exact cause for these sex-based discrepancies is unknown, doctors and researchers say it’s connected to a few factors.
“In our experience, young female athletes, especially soccer players, have weaker neck muscles and smaller skull surface areas,” said Dr. Gillian Hotz, a neuroscientist who specializes in treating brain injury, and director of the concussion program at the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute. In addition, there are simply more women and girls involved in contact sports today than in previous generations. Females are more likely than males to self-report and emphasize symptoms related to injuries. Females are also more prone to migraines, which makes them more sensitive to headaches.
Coaches, trainers, and sports medicine specialists are striving to reduce the risk of brain injury for all athletes. They are developing best practices based on specific sports and the age and sex of the athletes, to ensure proper injury prevention and recovery protocols for athletes at all levels.
Dr. Hotz and her colleagues, for instance, are advocating for the acceptance of cheerleading as a contact sport. Their research reveals that cheerleading accounts for 65% of catastrophic sports-related injuries among females due to the level of aerial and acrobatic activity. Once cheerleading is reclassified, those athletes will become eligible for the same resources available to athletes in other contact sports.
What can athletes do to help avoid injuries to the head and neck?
According to Dr. Hotz, “Parents of young athletes should ensure their child learns the proper skills and techniques of their sport. For instance, girls who play soccer really need to head the ball in the right spot, which is in the forehead area, not on the tops of their heads. If your child is wearing a helmet, make sure it fits properly and that she’s wearing the right size. Your child’s coaches and certified athletic trainers must understand concussion management and have an effective protocol in place to respond to head injuries that occur during practice, on the field or court, or while training.”
For adult female athletes, strength training and conditioning are essential to avoid brain injuries while training and competing. “Focus on neck strengthening, shoulder strengthening and range of motion, and total body conditioning,” Dr. Hotz says. “To help prevent injury, learn proper techniques for coming into contact with the ball (e.g., heading, maneuvering to take the ball, or running with it).”
The biggest threat to an athlete’s brain health is multiple concussions in a short period of time. By following “Gradual Return to Play” protocols, concussed athletes safely participate in increasingly difficult physical activities over time. This ensures they’re ready to return to the rigors of their specific sport without experiencing more brain injury symptoms.
“It’s essential that players take the time out to heal and become asymptomatic before they return to training and competition,” says Dr. Hotz.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.
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