Female Athletes Are on the Rise — And So is Their Concussion Rate

lax drawIn high schools and colleges around the nation, female athletes are on the rise in terms of both number and performance. Forty-two percent of all high-school athletes in the nation are female; 46% of all players on NCAA Division I teams are women. Both are all-time highs, and both have Title IX defenders celebrating the shift in culture.

These are indeed exciting statistics. But their darker underside was recently revealed in an article in the SF Gate: Concussions sustained by female athletes are gaining on the record set by boys.

Girls’ soccer is second only to boys’ football in the number of concussions that take place during a given game. While it trails the number of football concussions by a considerable margin — soccer is responsible for 8% of all high school player concussions, while football takes the blame for a whopping 47% — the statistic is complicated by the recent revelation that concussions present different symptoms in girls than in boys.

Concussion Symptoms May Differ By Gender

iStock_000029531824_MediumAt least, the way concussions are reported is different between the genders. Those studying the problem are not sure if girls actually experience different symptoms, or if they simply have a harder time admitting their injuries to a coach.

The majority of high school coaches — for teams of either gender — are male. Some wonder if this means that girls are less inclined to notify a coach of an injury, or feel compelled to make it sound less serious than it is.

Dr. Paul Fisher, chief of pediatric neurology at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, confirmed that girls tend to report milder symptoms to male coaches than a boy athlete would be inclined to do.

“Her concussion could be missed if the coach isn’t alert to the differences in how boys and girls report symptoms,” he told SF Gate.

‘I Don’t Want to Live Like This Anymore’

Last April, the Washington Post told the story of Tori Bellucci, an 18-year-old former soccer player who had suffered five concussions during her time playing for Huntingtown High School. She reported getting dizzy just from climbing flights of stairs, along with problems remember what class she was supposed to go to. She also suffered from constant pain and aches, and from uncharacteristic, irrational moodiness.

“It changes the way you think and feel,” Bellucci, now 18, said. “I was just like really sad, really kind of desperate type of feeling. I couldn’t do anything because of my head, so I would just be in my room with the shades drawn. I was like, ‘I don’t want to live like this anymore.’ ”

Despite being an All-Met player, she turned down a scholarship to play soccer at Towson University, unwilling to continue with hospital visits and worsening health for another four years.

Is Girls’ Soccer Twice as Dangerous as Boys’ Soccer?

Soccer ControlSince 2008, girls’ soccer players have been reporting concussions in startling numbers: an average of 14 concussions per 10,000 games played. That’s twice the concussion rate of boys’ soccer, where players only report about 7 concussions per 10,000 games. ( A “game” is each game played per player, meaning a game including 30 athletes is 30 games.)

Two doctors studying the trend—Dr. Dawn Comstock of the Colorado School of Public Health, and Dr. Kevin Crutchfield, director of the Comprehensive Sports Concussion Program at the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Brain & Spine Institute at LifeBridge Health—say that the data cannot explain the increased numbers in women players.

One theory is that girls are more susceptible to concussions across all sports due to weaker muscles and tighter ligaments in female necks compared to boys’ necks. Additionally, women have a greater susceptibility to migraine headaches, which closely resemble post-concussive headaches in their symptoms. Additionally, Comstock theorized that hormonal differences may cause variation of energy transfer within the male and female brains.

Regardless of the reason, sports organizations at both ends of the spectrum are being called upon to address the alarming trend of sports-related injuries. Only last August, a group of soccer parents and players filed a class-action lawsuit against FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, over its handling of concussions. The plaintiffs are not seeking financial damages; rather, they are asking for the sport’s rules to be changed to limit “headers” for children and alter FIFA’s substitution protocols to protect the health of players of all ages.

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