Men are more likely to acquire a brain injury than women, and are three-times more likely to die from a brain injury. Perhaps because of this, the media tends to pay more attention to men and brain injury. For instance, name a person in Canada who didn’t know about NHL player Sidney Crosby’s struggle with concussions from 2011 to 2012.
But there’s a lot about women and brain injury which needs to be understood. How many people know about award-winning women’s hockey Olympian Meghan Duggan’s struggle with concussion? Or about hockey player Katie Weatherston, who lost her spot in the 2006 Olympics due to concussion symptoms? Or, more recently, Nicole Setterlund, who left professional sports due to TBI?
Given recent evidence that females are more susceptible to concussions and have greater difficulties with recovery than men, it stands to reason the focus of attention should be shared between men and women equally. But further research is required to understand how men and women respond to and recover from TBI differently.
Male and female brains: different but equal
Despite decades of jokes on the subject, male and female brains are, infact, different.
In general, male brains are larger than female brains, while female brains have thicker, more convoluted cortexes with more tightly packed neurons (brain cells).
Functionally, male and female brains rely more heavily on different sides of their brains when performing various tasks. Male brains have a higher proportion of gray matter whereas female brains have a higher proportion of white matter. Gray matter is made up of more active neurons which process information. White matter networks information between different areas of the brain and allows thoughts to be intergrated from gray matter, assisting with complex skills such as language.
This suggests that women’s brains are more complex, even though men and women are equally intelligent. Evidence also suggests that the percentage of gray and white matter regions involved in cognition, which are located in the frontal lobes, is drastically larger in women than that in men. Taking into account the specific location of trauma to the brain, this could explain why frontal lobe injuries can be more devasting to females than males.
Concussions Rates for Men and Women
Although the majority of people who sustain a TBI are male, recent studies indicate that women are actually more susceptible to concussions and experience poorer outcomes than men. Despite the fact that more men play contact sports than women, women suffer significantly higher rates of concussions than men in these sports. Where men have a higher percentage of concussions resulting from player-to-player contact, women have a higher percentage of concussions resulting from player-surface contact and player-equipment contact. A higher incidence rate of sports-related concussions (SRCs) has been documented in females in high school sports (soccer and basketball) and college-level sports (soccer, basketball, and ice hockey). Furthermore, high school girls are more likely to have recurrent concussions than boys.
The gender-specific rates of sports-related concussions have been explained by the fact that women have less neck strength than men. Neck strength is needed to protect the brain from sudden acceleration-deceleration forces. In fact, it is already well-documented that women are more susceptible to whiplash injuries due to sudden acceleration-deceleration. TBI and whiplash are often experienced concurrently and can cause similar symptoms. Besides having stronger neck and back muscles, men also have more cartilage in the facet joints of the spine, resulting in better protection from injury.
A person’s body mass index (BMI) may play a role in transmitting force and contribute to the severity of an injury, since young girls tend to have higher BMIs than boys.
Here’s what some of the research has found:
- Women who experienced worse outcomes than men following a TBI also had higher BMIs than men
- In a study comparing men and women with mild TBIs, women experienced worse symptoms than men three-months post injury, especially women in their childbearing years
- Three-years after their injuries, women with mild TBIs had worse outcomes than men in terms of symptoms and disability.
- Post-concussion female soccer athletes have significantly slower reaction times and perform more poorly on visual memory tests compared to their male equivalents.
- Female TBI survivors tend to outperform male survivors on tests of verbal memory and executive functions, including planning, initiating, and problem solving.
- Women are less likely to have a caregiver and are particularly vulnerable to isolation, disempowerment and abuse.
- Male survivors are more likely to be successfully employed, receive vocational rehabilitation services, and less likely to have vocational services prematurely terminated than women.
Hormonal Changes After TBI
Hormones fluctuate more drastically in women, making women particularly susceptible to migraines and reproductive changes after a TBI. Fluctuations in estradiol are a cause of migraines in women of childbearing ages. Concussed female soccer players report double the rate of migraines compared to the males.
One study followed 104 women with moderate to severe TBI and observed that 46 per cent of those women had amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation) lasting up to 60 months and 68 per cent of them developed irregular menstrual cycles including more skipped menses. The women also reported worsened premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopausal symptoms after TBI. Although the study did not see an effect of TBI on fertility, it noted that fewer female TBI survivors had live births than the controls and that those that did had more difficulties in the postpartum period.
Given the anatomical, hormonal, and psychosocial differences between men and women, it lends to reason that sex should be a factor when planning treatment, support, and return to school/sports/work for TBI survivors. However, further research is needed before sex-specific treatments can be developed and new medical management guidelines established.
Alison suffered a concussion in 2013 that damaged her mind and body. The injury shook her spirit, but it didn’t take her determination or ultimately her happiness. In fact, she’s certain that she never would have found love, had it not been for her concussion. Although she went from being a workaholic to a homemaker (and a poor one at that), an extrovert to an introvert, and a partier to a hermit, she set new priorities, accomplished new goals, and found new hobbies. Some things haven’t changed about Alison; she still loves dogs, cooking, and helping others. She’s hopeful that she will one day reconnect with her love for traveling. In the meantime, she hopes to help brain injury survivors and their caregivers by sharing her experience and spreading awareness.