Female Athletes’ Concussion Symptoms May Be Overlooked

Researchers have suggested for years that male and female athletes may experience sport-related concussions in different ways. A new study now offers evidence that symptoms of concussion may vary based on an athlete’s sex—making the evaluation of head injuries, already a complex task, even more difficult.

The report, which will appear in the January issue of the Journal of Athletic Training, shows that female athletes who suffer concussions often experience symptoms that can be more easily missed during sideline evaluations—or wrongly attributed to other conditions, like stress or depression—than the symptoms of male athletes with the same injury.

The findings are part of a national study examining differences in concussion symptoms between male and female high-school athletes. The report was released on Tuesday in conjunction with the National Athletic Trainers’ Association’s Youth Sports Safety Summit in Washington.

The study included more than 800 high-school athletes who suffered concussions in nine different sports over two years. Researchers found that male and female athletes experience many of the same symptoms following a head injury, like headaches and nausea.

Male athletes, though, often reported cognitive symptoms like amnesia or disorientation after a suffering a concussion—signs of head trauma that are not easily overlooked. Female athletes, by contrast, often had neurobehavioral symptoms like drowsiness, or somatic symptoms like sensitivity to noise.

The female athletes’ symptoms, the report cautioned, could be more easily missed than the male athletes’ symptoms. They could also lead sports-medicine staff members to attribute them to a different condition—anxiety, for instance.

R. Dawn Comstock, an associate professor at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, was an author of the study. Diagnosing concussions, she said in a written statement, is one of the most difficult tasks athletic trainers face. The gender-based differences, she said, make that diagnosis even more complicated.

“As more girls and young women participate in rough-and-tumble sports, understanding possible differences in concussion symptoms between the two genders has become increasingly important,” she said.

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