An outline of what you should know about the differences between concussions in boys and girls

By Jennifer Kelly Geddes
July 30, 2014
Credit: Brooke Slezak

Modern boys and girls may compete and excel in most of the same sports, but when it comes to head injuries, there are important differences between the sexes. "Overall, concussion rates are similar between boys and girls, but we do see a slightly higher rate for girls when comparing them to boys who play the same sport," says Mark Halstead, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatric sports medicine at Washington University in Saint Louis. There are a few theories as to why this may be: one is that girls may be more likely to report their symptoms; another is that girls may have weaker neck muscles, which might predispose them to more concussions.

These differences were underscored in a recent study presented at a meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine by Shayne Fehr, M.D., from Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, which uncovered some surprising results. In a study of preliminary data of about 550 concussed kids ages 10 to 18, girls on average reported more severe symptoms and took more than three weeks longer to recover when compared to the boys.

Parents and coaches should be aware that boys and girls may present an array of symptoms at varying times and may recover at a different pace. Here's what you need to know.

How the symptoms compareThe most commonly reported symptoms were headache, trouble concentrating, sensitivity to sound and light, and dizziness; irritability was seen more in boys than in girls. "Based on the patients referred to our clinic, girls reported more symptoms and took longer for the symptoms to resolve, but we just don't know why this is," Dr. Fehr says. "Multiple factors likely exist, but we cannot say that it's due to a difference in girls' brains."

As stated earlier, girls' neck muscles may play a role in their increased concussion rates, possibly because the muscles aren't as developed as boys' are and may not be able to withstand or absorb the same kinds of blows.

Toughing it outThe rough-and-tumble image of boys at play definitely carries over to sports. "Football tends to get all the bad press when it comes to concussions, but ice hockey and lacrosse also have high rates," Dr. Halstead says. An injury during a game may be brushed off as "no big deal," and sustaining body checks or tackles could even be viewed as a badge of honor. Because of this, boys may underreport concussion symptoms, resulting in a higher reported rate for girls.

Whether the reasons are physical or cultural, parents and coaches need to treat a potential concussion in a boy or a girl seriously and to seek medical help. Keeping a player off the field for the rest of the game, or even the entire season, may be appropriate if the symptoms warrant it.

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