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September 6th, 2017

Why concussions may impact female athletes differently

By David Olmos

Scientists are learning more all the time about the differences between the female and male brain. So it’s perhaps not too surprising to know that athletes of different gender are impacted differently by brain injuries, such as concussions.

Mayumi Prins, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is studying these difference along with colleagues at the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center. Prins says scientists have known for more than a decade that female athletes sustain concussions at higher rates than males when playing sports with similar rules, such as basketball, soccer and baseball/softball.

“Women’s role in sports have really changed and they’ve gotten much more aggressive in their play, such as in soccer for example,” says Prins. Studies examining how women soccer players “headed” the ball found they put more stress on their neck muscles than male players when executing the whip-like skill in which the ball is passed, shot or cleared off the head or forehead, she says.

Most of the past research about sports concussions has focused on males, Prins says. “There’s been little basic science research done on adolescents, females and concussions,” she adds. To date, research has shown that female and male brains differ in dozens of ways in activity patterns, anatomy, chemistry and physiology.

More studies about female concussions would help answer such questions as whether females suffer worse or different symptoms than males and whether those symptoms last longer, Prins says. The current science on these topics has produced mixed results and is inconclusive, she adds.

Some reasons why concussions might affect female athletes and non-athletes differently than males include hormonal issues, differences in how their upper bodies, particularly the muscles in the neck, react after collisions, and that females are generally more likely than males to disclose concussion-related symptoms such as headaches, diminished social interaction or depression, Prins says.

For parents of children who participate in sports, Prins offers the following advice:

  • Consider the relative risk. While concussions in females are a serious concern, bear in mind that the relative risk of concussion is quite low compared to other activities of adolescents and young adults, such as driving, drugs, sexually transmitted diseases and obesity. “There are other things besides concussion that children and young adults are at greater risk for,” Prins says.
  • Athletics provide positive benefits. Involvement in athletics have been shown to benefit females in a variety of positive ways, such as development of positive body image, increasing bone density, and psychological health.
  • Watch for prolonged symptoms. While the majority of females (and males) will recover from concussions in a week or two, some will have prolonged symptoms, a condition known as post-concussive syndrome. If symptoms persist, seek medical assistance from a neurologist.
  • Social isolation. Concussions can produce a sense of social isolation and stress. “If you break a foot and are in a cast, everyone sees that and understands,” Prins says. “But if you have a head injury, people may look at you and pick up on some different behaviors, saying ‘What’s wrong with you?’ That can produce some social alienation, particularly in female athletes.”

More information about the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program is available here.  Information specifically about females and concussions is available from Pink Concussions, a nonprofit organization focused on female brain injuries.

Scientists are learning more all the time about the differences between the female and male brain. So it’s perhaps not too surprising to know that athletes of different gender are impacted differently by brain injuries, such as concussions.

Mayumi Prins, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is studying these difference along with colleagues at the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center. Prins says scientists have known for more than a decade that female athletes sustain concussions at higher rates than males when playing sports with similar rules, such as basketball, soccer and baseball/softball.

“Women’s role in sports have really changed and they’ve gotten much more aggressive in their play, such as in soccer for example,” says Prins. Studies examining how women soccer players “headed” the ball found they put more stress on their neck muscles than male players when executing the whip-like skill in which the ball is passed, shot or cleared off the head or forehead, she says.

Most of the past research about sports concussions has focused on males, Prins says. “There’s been little basic science research done on adolescents, females and concussions,” she adds. To date, research has shown that female and male brains differ in dozens of ways in activity patterns, anatomy, chemistry and physiology.

More studies about female concussions would help answer such questions as whether females suffer worse or different symptoms than males and whether those symptoms last longer, Prins says. The current science on these topics has produced mixed results and is inconclusive, she adds.

Some reasons why concussions might affect female athletes and non-athletes differently than males include hormonal issues, differences in how their upper bodies, particularly the muscles in the neck, react after collisions, and that females are generally more likely than males to disclose concussion-related symptoms such as headaches, diminished social interaction or depression, Prins says.

For parents of children who participate in sports, Prins offers the following advice:

  • Consider the relative risk. While concussions in females are a serious concern, bear in mind that the relative risk of concussion is quite low compared to other activities of adolescents and young adults, such as driving, drugs, sexually transmitted diseases and obesity. “There are other things besides concussion that children and young adults are at greater risk for,” Prins says.
  • Athletics provide positive benefits. Involvement in athletics have been shown to benefit females in a variety of positive ways, such as development of positive body image, increasing bone density, and psychological health.
  • Watch for prolonged symptoms. While the majority of females (and males) will recover from concussions in a week or two, some will have prolonged symptoms, a condition known as post-concussive syndrome. If symptoms persist, seek medical assistance from a neurologist.
  • Social isolation. Concussions can produce a sense of social isolation and stress. “If you break a foot and are in a cast, everyone sees that and understands,” Prins says. “But if you have a head injury, people may look at you and pick up on some different behaviors, saying ‘What’s wrong with you?’ That can produce some social alienation, particularly in female athletes.”

More information about the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program is available here.  Information specifically about females and concussions is available from Pink Concussions, a nonprofit organization focused on female brain injuries.

Tags: brain injury, brain research, Children’s Health, childrens health, concussions, David Geffen School of Medicine, depression, exercise, Genetics, mental health, News & Insights, Psychological stress, Psychology, Research, sports injuries, sports medicine, sports medicine, UCLA Brain Research Institute, women's health, Women's Health

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