Rutgers study analyzes whether female athletes are at a greater concussion risk than their male counterparts


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A study, led by Rutgers professor Carrie Esopenko, found that female athletes at Rutgers—Newark were more likely to sustain severe concussions than their male counterparts.


Researchers from Rutgers are studying the impact of concussions on female athletes after noticing that women suffer concussions at higher rates and experience more severe symptoms than men.

The researchers, led by Dr. Carrie Esopenko of the Rutgers School of Health Professions, are not entirely certain why this is, but one theory has to do with neck strength. Most male athletes generally have stronger neck muscles than their female counterparts, so the force of a concussion can better be absorbed by the body, Esopenko said. 

“You can think of it as a lesson in physics where it's a transfer of force ... If you have a less strong neck, the neck doesn’t absorb the force,” she said.

Women also respond differently to traumatic brain injuries depending on where they are in their menstrual cycles. Their menstrual cycles are in turn affected by the injury, Esopenko said.

“Obviously college-age athletes, specifically women, hitting their heads and disrupting menstrual functions isn’t a good thing since those are the big childbearing years," she said.

Esopenko’s research assesses Rutgers—Newark athletes before and after they experience traumatic brain injuries, which is fairly unique to this study. She said that about 10 to 20 percent of the subjects they initially assess do get concussions during the study. Most other studies only consider athletes who have already gotten concussions, so they do not have a baseline to compare them to.

A concurrent study is looking into the psychological impacts of concussions on both athletes and non-athletes. Esopenko’s team wants to know whether those psychological effects are caused by the injury, or if the problems already exist and are revealed by the treatment following the injury. The researchers are also comparing the psychological effects of concussions and other injuries.

Another question that Esopenko’s team wants to answer is why some people take so long to recover from concussions. About 30 percent of people who get concussions take more than the standard time to recover. Protracted recovery can even last up to several years.

“Unfortunately, not every concussion is the same and some student-athletes have complications that require a longer recovery than others,” said Kyle Brostrand, Rutgers—New Brunswick’s coordinator of Concussion Management and Research. “Our team of physicians and I try and identify these student-athletes who are at risk for a prolonged recovery as quickly as possible so that we can refer them to specialists who can perform specific treatments and therapy that will help expedite the recovery process.” 

Brostrand and Rutgers Sports Medicine have been working with Esopenko’s team at Rutgers—Newark.

Although concussions associated with football get the most media attention, they are common in all contact sports, including soccer, lacrosse, hockey and basketball. Furthermore, women’s sports generally also have higher rates of concussions than men’s sports, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

The only contact sport in which men and women suffer from concussions at comparable rates is ice hockey, where men get 7.91 concussions per 10,000 exposures, and women get 7.52 concussions per 10,000 exposures.

To prevent concussions, student-athletes should practice safe techniques and use proper equipment. They should also know what symptoms to watch out for, and seek medical advice if they think they have a concussion, Brostrand said.

Rutgers is one of many schools concerned about the impact of concussions on their athletes. Esopenko is the University’s lead researcher for The Big Ten/CIC-Ivy League Traumatic Brain Injury Research Collaboration, which was founded in 2012 to examine the causes and effects of concussions and other sports-related brain injuries.

The collaboration will advise Big Ten and Ivy League schools on how best to minimize and manage concussions, but Esopenko said that it is not yet ready to make a recommendation.

“The data collected in this study will help affect rule changes and give us a better idea of how concussions affect the college athletic population. Hopefully with Dr. Esopenko’s research on gender and psychology as it relates to concussion,” Brostrand said. “We can help answer the very important questions that she is asking.”


Jane Keller

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