Athletic girls and bruised brains

Female teenage athletes are getting just as many concussions as their male peers, but their injuries receive less attention and are less understood.

Published October 2, 2007 3:25PM (EDT)

Today's New York Times has a story that parents of athletic daughters might relate to. It's about the surprisingly high incidence of concussions among female teenage athletes.

Usually thought about in the context of male sports like football, concussions are a growing concern for girls. According to an about-to-be-published study in the Journal of Athletic Training, female soccer players suffer from 68 percent more concussions than guys do, and female basketball players report concussions three times more often than do their male counterparts. (And they also take longer to recover.) Why's that? The Times says no one's entirely certain -- one hypothesis is that girls are more likely than boys to report their injuries to doctors. Another is that their neck muscles tend to be less developed than guys', so less shock absorption is available for the brain. (Personally, I've always wondered why in sports like lacrosse, guys are in full combat gear while girls have mouth guards and short skirts -- maybe articles like this one will help change that.)

One physician quoted by the Times said that "generally speaking, the medical profession does not do a very good job in recognizing that female athletes sustain concussions at an equal or even higher rate as males."

"It's flying under the radar," he continued. "And as a result, looking for concussions is not pursued with the same diligence, and it's setting girls up for a worse result."

Concussions among girls are a big problem, since they're participating in sports like basketball and soccer at rates only slightly lower than those of boys, the Times reports. And while many people fully recover from concussions without long-term side effects, not everyone is so lucky. A condition called "post-concussion syndrome" can cause dizziness, lethargy and inability to concentrate -- all symptoms that can have serious effects on high schoolers' academic performance. (Other immediate effects, like temporary blindness and short-term memory loss, are also alarming.)

As is true with all serious athletes, the real challenge is convincing players that the potential long-term damage caused by a concussion might be serious enough that it makes sense to stop playing -- after all, what true athlete is going to willingly let anything get in the way of his or her game? Since that's a decision most serious high school athletes -- male and female both -- are likely to not want to make, here's hoping that more progress is made in understanding why girls seem to be getting more concussions than guys, so that we can find safer ways for both genders to play.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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