Science-- there's something for everyone

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Concussions are worse for women and kids

Concussions are often in the news and for good reason. Over 300,000 sports related concussions occur in the United States each year. And those are just the ones that resulted in visits to emergency rooms. As efforts are made to diagnose, treat and prevent concussions, one thing is becoming clear. Not all people react to or recover from concussions equally.

First, what is a concussion? A concussion is simply a brain injury caused when the brain collides with the inside of the skull. This can be the result of a direct impact to the head or of the rapid deceleration of the entire body. Just as you catapult against your seat belt (or your windshield if you’re foolish enough to not buckle up) when your car suddenly stops, your brain will slam into the inside of your skull when your body suddenly stops.

Needless to say, brain injuries are bad things, especially for kids. High school students can have memory impairments for up to 2 weeks and reaction time impairments for up to 3 weeks after suffering from a concussion. In contrast, college students are usually back to normal in less than one week. Tracey Covassin of Michigan State University and her colleagues wanted to see whether gender also played a role in recovery from concussion.

Ideally, for a study of post-concussive cognitive impairment, you’d want to compare results in each individual before and after receiving a concussion. Unfortunately, you can’t hit people over the head with a crow bar, even for science. You can, however, give a baseline test to a large group of people and hope that some of them will later suffer a traumatic brain injury. Thus, the researchers administered the pre-concussion cognitive tests to 2000 high school and college athletes, and the post-concussion tests to the 222 of them that were thoughtful enough to provide a concussion sample.

As expected, high school kids had more prolonged deficits than college-aged kids. Women also suffered from a slightly greater loss of function than men.  In addition, women complained of more post-injury symptoms (though they may have just been more willing to admit to having symptoms). However, the differences between genders were not as significant as the differences between high school age and college age athletes. 

The data suggests that, like teenagers, women be held back from rejoining their teams a bit longer than men. While one week may be more than enough recovery time for adult men, women and kids may require as much as three times as long to get back to normal.

Image by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator, 2/2/2008.

Covassin T, Elbin RJ, Harris W, Parker T, & Kontos A (2012). The role of age and sex in symptoms, neurocognitive performance, and postural stability in athletes after concussion. The American journal of sports medicine, 40 (6), 1303-12 PMID: 22539534.