Females and Younger Athletes Take Longer to Recover From Concussions

May 15, 2012

It isn't only football and hockey players who suffer from concussions.  Any athlete is at risk, including females.   Studies show girls are reporting nearly twice as many concussions as boys in sports played by both.  Now, new research out of Michigan State University shows that females and younger athletes who suffered concussions took longer to recover than males and older athletes.

Tracey Covassin conducted the study, which is published in the current issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine.   Covassin teaches athletic training at Michigan State University.  She spoke with WKAR’s Gretchen Millich.

GRETCHEN MILLICH:   We know from previous studies that girls are at a higher risk for concussions because of anatomical factors like weaker necks, but your study found that females took longer to recover from a concussion than males.  Why that conclusion?

TRACEY COVASSIN:  There are studies, and we have done these studies as well, where people look to see who’s at risk for concussion.  Is a female more likely to get a concussion than men?  The answer to that is “yes”.   Then, after they have the concussion, we looked at their recovery, and we gave them post-concussion tests on neurocognitive impairments, as well as concussion symptoms.  Then we looked at their recovery to see if females had different neurocognitive impairments. We found that females had greater impairments on visual memory, and we also found that females reported more symptoms compared to male athletes.

MILLICH:  Your study also looked at age as a factor, and you found that younger athletes also took longer to recover from a concussion.

COVASSIN:  Yes, our study also examined differences between high school and collegiate athletes.  What we found that high school athletes who incur a concussion are going to take longer to recover than a collegiate athlete.  The most important point is that we need to understand that each concussed athlete needs to be managed individually, and that you need to be really cautious with returning them to play.  You don’t want to return these younger athletes too soon, because there is a potential for second-impact syndrome.  That’s when an athlete has one concussion, doesn’t recover from their injury, and then incurs a second concussion.  There could be permanent brain damage or even catastrophic consequences from this.  So, it’s very important if you are working with high school athletes or if you’re a parent or a coach, that you understand that these younger athletes are going to take longer to recover and expect them to be out longer.

MILLICH:   That has not been the case in the past.

COVASSIN:   I would have to agree.  We need to educate the coaches, the athletes and the parents. We also need to educate physicians, so that they understand that you should not return an athlete to play until they are completely symptom free at rest and exertion.  Just because the athlete doesn’t have any symptoms, you need to exert the athlete and see if the symptoms return.  Then, you need to do a stepwise progression to return to play.  You’re not going to throw them right back into that soccer game.  You want to put them through a progression to slowly ease their way back into the sport, which I think in the past, as you said, wasn’t something that was being done.

MILLICH:  It seems that we’re seeing more and more concussions.  Are we just hearing about these injuries, or has there really been an increase?

COVASSIN:  I think there are multiple factors.  People are more aware of concussions and are diagnosing and evaluating more concussions.  I think we’re better at determining whether or not an athlete has incurred a concussion.  We have better neurocognitive tests, and we have better balance tests that help us determine if an athlete has a concussion.  I think parents, athletes and coaches are more aware of the signs and symptoms of a concussion.  They also know that there is potential for some serious consequences, therefore, they’re reporting their concussions more.   That said, we need to factor in that there’s an increase in population and an increase in sport participation.  So, we are seeing more concussions, but how much of that is related to the fact that there is an increase in sport participation?