Sports Concussion Risks for Girls and Boys

All sports have injury risks but contact sports are the riskiest, especially football, soccer, basketball, and hockey. With 7.2 million male and female high school athletes, ER visits for concussions have more than doubled from 1997 to 2007.

Big Deal or Minor Head Injury?

According to Mark Halstead, MD, a pediatric sports injury specialist and assistant professor or pediatrics and orthopedics at Washington University in St. Louis, a concussion is a type of head injury that can cause a temporary change in the way the brain works. Although scary, they rarely cause lasting problems.

The brain is made of soft tissue which is cushioned by blood and spinal fluid. A hard blow to the head can cause the brain to shift suddenly--even knocking it against the skull's bony surface.

Common concussion symptoms include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • trouble concentrating or remembering
  • sensitivity to light or sound
  • confusion
  • nausea
  • amnesia to things before and/or after the concussion

Halstead says recovery rates vary because the brain heals at its own pace. Rest from physical and cognitive activity helps. However, "schoolwork, playing video games, and even watching TV can all make symptoms worse," says Halstead.

Fortunately concussions are being taken more seriously today. "Gone are the days when a blow to the head meant 15 minutes of rest on the bench and then returning to play," explains Dr. Halstead adding that loss of consciousness was once thought necessary in order to diagnose a concussion. "We know now that fewer than 10 percent of kids with concussions lose consciousness."

The American Academy of Neurology recommends any athlete suspected of concussion be removed from play until they have a medical examination. Halstead says a week or 10 days on the sidelines-and plenty of rest-is the typical treatment for most uncomplicated concussions.

In the short term, concussions affect school performance and can cause disturbances in sleep and mood but Halstead admits that the long-term affects are more difficult to pinpoint. "We don't have any long-term follow up of athletes specifically for concussions but there have been reports of increased rates of depression, Alzheimer's-like symptoms, and mental disorders in athletes who have had a history of concussions, as they get older.

Concussion Symptoms Differ for Boys and Girls

A December 2010 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found that both sexes (95 percent) reported headaches as the number one symptom of concussions but secondary symptoms varied.

Boys reported being confused after a head injury.
Girls are generally more sensitive to noise.

Further, almost 1 in 3 girls reported feeling drowsy after being hit in the head, compared to 1 in 5 boys.

Another recent study confirmed that girls have a higher rate of concussion than boys who play similar sports. Doctor Halstead says the reasons are unclear. "One theory is that girls have weaker neck muscles so they can't stabilize their head as well during a blow which leads to a more significant shaking of the brain in the skull." Incidentally, girls' soccer ranks second only to boys' football for reported concussions.

What does all this mean for players and coaches? When in doubt, sit them out, says Halstead. Or, better yet, direct your children to "safer" sports.  "Anything that lacks the potential for contact with another athlete-think running, golf and bowling-will decrease the odds of a concussion," advises Halstead.

Journal of Athletic Training

Interview with Dr. Mark Halstead, lead author of the new AAP clinical report on concussion prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Public Radio

All Children's Hospital