Concussions and Female Athletes – Prevention and Treatment

Each year US emergency departments treat an estimated 173,285 sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries among children and adolescents from birth to 19 years old. This includes concussions. During the last decade this number has increased by 60%, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Concussions affect athletes in all sports and at all levels. However, much of the research on sports-related concussions has focused on male athletes and little is known about concussions in female athletes. The Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) is a research center dedicated to learning how sports and physical activity affect the lives of girls and women, their families and communities.

Just last spring the Tucker Center, in partnership with Twin Cities Public Television (TPT), developed and aired a documentary, “Concussions and Female Athletes: The Untold Story.” It examines the underlying causes of concussions and practical solutions to help prevent and treat sports-related concussion injuries in female athletes. The documentary is being used as an educational tool for high school and college coaches, educators, policy makers and communities. As a result, there’s been greater awareness that concussions for female athletes are just as serious an issue as it has been for male athletes. This has generated new research activity surrounding concussions and female athletes. Research findings revealed:

  • In comparable sports like soccer, ice hockey and basketball, there is a higher rate of concussions in females than males
  • Male athletes get concussions more frequently, mainly from playing football
  • While the number of concussions is greater for males, the rate of concussions per hour of play is greater among females.

Three Ways Parents and Coaches Can Prevent and Treat Concussions
A concussion is a serious brain injury that can happen in any sport or recreational activity. It’s important for parents and coaches to have a better understanding of concussions as well as how to detect and treat them. Here are three key points for parents and coaches to keep in mind when working with female athletes:

  1. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of a concussion.
    Many people assume that a serious concussion only happens if an athlete is knocked unconscious when in fact, concussions can still happen without being knocked out. There are many signs and symptoms of concussions that typically fall into four categories: thinking/remembering, physical, emotional/mood and sleep. Some of these symptoms may appear right away while others might go unnoticed for days or even months after an injury.
  2. Recognize that concussions are a serious brain injury.
    Concussions should not be taken lightly. Seek medical attention right away and do not allow the athlete to return to play until they’ve been checked by a medical professional. Research has found that children are at much greater risk for a second concussion if they return to play too soon, known as “Second Impact Syndrome.” Minnesota is one of many states to implement a concussion law that requires coaches to remove athletes under 18 from sports events if they have symptoms of a concussion. The law also requires coaches to undergo periodic training about concussions and ensures parents have easy access to information regarding the risks.
  3. Concussions are both a physical and cognitive brain injury.
    Even if physical symptoms go away, the brain is still recovering cognitively. So it’s important for the athlete to get a lot of rest and avoid doing anything that could cause another blow or jolt to the head.  Ask a medical professional when it’s safe to drive a car, ride a bike or use heavy equipment. Write things down if you have a hard time remembering. Depending on the severity of the concussion, you may have to re-learn skills that were lost.

For more information and helpful resources on diagnosing, treating and preventing concussions, visit the CDC’s website.

–Nicole LaVoi, Associate Director, Tucker Center
University of Minnesota
College of Education and Human Development

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Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D.

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Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D.

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