Female athletes are at higher risk for concussion – more research could explain why

KPIC-TV [CBS] (Roseburg, OR) February 8, 2022

FLEMING ISLAND, Fla. (TND) — As the 2022 Winter Olympics kick off in Beijing, the world is watching the best athletes compete. But as Spotlight on America discovered, there’s a gender divide when it comes to sports safety. Studies show female athletes are at a higher risk of concussions. But there’s a lack of understanding when it comes to explaining why. That’s why experts are calling for more gender-specific research to protect women before they hit the field, ice, or gym.

Ann Marie Hawley was a standout high school lacrosse player in Fleming Island, Florida. She comes from a self-proclaimed lacrosse family, with her dad and three brothers all playing the sport when she was growing up. Hawley even played with the boys when she was younger, until eventually joining her high school team, and being recruited to play at Syracuse University. She told us she didn’t think about the risk of concussion until her home state took a significant step to protect female lacrosse players.

Florida became the first and only state in the country to require helmets for girls lacrosse, even though helmets have long been the standard for male players. The Sunshine State’s move stirred heated debate over whether requiring headgear would increase safety or encourage more aggressive play.

Hawley told us wearing the helmet was uncomfortable, and many of the other girls on her team didn’t like playing with the protective headgear. “Thinking about the helmet on your head, it just changed the game a little bit,” Hawley said.

But new research shows Florida’s helmet mandate was a major game-changer. A study out of the University of Florida looked at the last three girls’ lacrosse seasons nationwide and found Florida’s players were significantly less likely to have concussions than players in other states without helmets. The study analyzed about 76 full seasons of data from Florida high schools and 166 seasons of data from other states.

According to the study, girls who play the sport in states that don’t require headgear had a 59% higher concussion rate. The number is even higher during competitions, with the study finding games were more hazardous than practices. Concussions were 74% higher during competition among players in states without headgear requirements.

Experts like Kathleen Bachynski, assistant professor of Public Health at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, says the study puts a spotlight on the importance of gender-specific research when it comes to head injuries.

“We have to include girls and women in studies and unfortunately, I think sports research is only just kind of starting to catch up to that,” said Bachynski. “You’re missing half the picture, I think, for concussions if you’re not including half the population in your research.

Bachynski told Spotlight on America all states need to take the Florida study seriously and also look at other girls’ and women’s sports from soccer to basketball. If not, she told us, there could be a big cost to female athletes.

“There’s a long history in medical research of doing studies on boys and men and just assuming those results apply to women. That’s not necessarily the case,” Bachynski said. “You don’t have the best available data. You’re taking data from other sports or from boys and men. You’re not collecting data specific to girls and women and that can put girls and women at greater risk.”

Bachynski acknowledged in sports like basketball and soccer, helmets may not be the answer. Instead, researchers could examine rules of play, and cultural aspects that may impact athlete safety according to their gender.

According to a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, female athletes are at 1.9 times greater risk for enduring sports-related concussions than male athletes. It also found greater risk in baseball, softball, basketball and soccer.

Experts we talked to said the idea of studying gender disparity in concussions is an emerging field and that more analyses are needed.

Spotlight on America recently visited Virginia Tech’s renowned helmet lab, known for testing football and bicycle helmets and advancing research to protect athletes. Stefan Duma, professor of engineering at Virginia Tech, is the director of the lab.

“We need to understand this. We need to look at the data. And we need to make informed decisions based on the science, based on the data to make things better for the sport,” Duma said. “We could tell you everything about a football player. What about a female athlete?

The issue is something Duma’s team is actively trying to understand.

For now, he explained, there are some working theories. “One of the theories is men have stronger necks so the musculature, in terms of getting hit, can resist that impact,” Duma told us. “Another theory is the way we think. Women tend to use more of the whole brain, whereas men use local, focused parts of the brain, so that would be an easier network to disrupt.”

Spotlight on America uncovered a number of new efforts to help promote understanding in this area.

•   World Rugby recently committed to research on head injuries in women
•   World-class soccer players like Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe have pledged to donate their brains to science
•   An arm of the National Institutes of Health is setting aside $6.8 million to projects that will study gender and concussions

Back in Florida, another season of girls lacrosse is about to begin. And other states now have their first evidence that helmets may better protect students. Spotlight on America reached out to USA Lacrosse to ask whether the organization would be issuing any guidance about whether headgear or helmets should be more universally required. They did not reply.

Ann Marie Hawley, unfortunately, won’t be on the field.

The promising player is still recovering from numerous surgeries on her knees that have kept her out of the game. She told Spotlight on America she’s hoping gender-specific research will expand beyond concussions, into other injuries, like hers, that plague female athletes.

“If you’re going to play then I think you should know these risks,” she said. “I think there is a huge difference, and it should be studied.”

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