Recent research on concussions has revealed that certain sports pose a particular danger to brain development and health. However, much of this research and discussion has focused on American football and has not made an active effort to equally test the effects that contact sports have on female athletes, despite some of the highest rates of concussions being reported from female soccer players. A new study launching in the Boston area and work being done by current and former members of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer team (USWNT) is making strides to close the gap in this research.
According to Traci Snedden from USA Today, “Federally-funded research had no mandate to include women in their recruitment plans” for studies on concussions. The rates and effects of concussions in females therefore have been studied less than those of male athletes. This is dangerous considering that recent research has shown the legitimate threat that female soccer players face. At the collegiate level, women’s soccer has the second-highest rate of reported Sports Related Concussions, according to a 2014 study by a team of researchers from Vanderbilt University, the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention, University of Rochester and Michigan State University. These rates are even more startling in high school athletes, as Snedden cites a study done at Northeastern University which found that female soccer players sustain concussions at a rate of three times more than male players.
The results of this research can in part be attributed to the biological differences that affect recovery. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association reported that the median recovery time of female high school athletes from their first concussion is 28 days, which is more than double the median rate of 11 that males experience. With a recovery time as long as this, it is possible that female athletes do not let themselves recover fully from a first concussion, making them more vulnerable to compounding and more severe concussions. Tom Goldman from National Public Radio (NPR) also reported that “Neurologists say girls can be more prone to concussion because they sometimes have weaker neck muscles that cause the head to flop and the brain to shake.” The effects that these head injuries have on athletes is becoming apparent in some of the United States’ most celebrated female soccer players.
This summer retired members of the USNWT, Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers announced that they are taking part in a study by Boston University School of Medicine’s STERN Lab. “The Soccer, Head Impacts and Neurological Effects (SHINE) Study,” will consist of “neurological, cognitive, mood, and behavior exams; advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans; collection of blood sample; and an optional lumbar puncture (spinal tap)” for women of at least 40 years of age who have played a minimum of 5 years of organized soccer. Two of the required years need to be completed after high school, and at least one on the Women’s National team, Olympic team or at the professional level.
In an interview with CBS News, Chastain and Akers revealed memory problems that they both have experienced in later life, which may be linked to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries. CTE, like the concept of concussions themselves, is most frequently associated with American football players who have endured many blows to the head. However, after hearing stories from former soccer players like Akers, who would typically do 50 headers a game, many feel that the discussion of who suffers from CTE must be broadened.
Concussions affect female athletes at a similar, if not greater, frequency as American football players. Despite a stark difference in the level of research studying this phenomena, some scientists and athletes are working to increase the knowledge on concussions in female athletes. This includes a long-term study done with the help of former soccer stars Chastain and Akers, and additional former and current USWNT players including Abby Womach and Megan Rapinoe, announcing that they will donate their brains to this type of research. The soccer community hopes this will allow players, coaches and spectators to better understand how to diagnose and treat these injuries.