There is ample evidence to suggest sex- and gender-based differences in the incidence of sports-related concussions. The mechanisms of concussion may vary between male and female athletes and contribute to this observed difference. Understanding the underlying etiology by pooling data from primary studies across different settings and sport types will inform interventions that can reduce concussion rates.
Specifically, we asked: (1) In which sports are female athletes less likely to experience concussions from player contact? (2) In which sports are female athletes more likely to experience concussions because of ball or equipment contact?
PubMed, EMBASE, and Cochrane Library databases were searched to identify articles published from January 2000 to December 2018. Ten studies met the inclusion criteria, which were studies that reported concussion incidence by mechanism for both male and female athletes. Exclusion criteria included non-English studies, conference abstracts, and studies on non-sports related concussions. The sports represented by the 10 studies included ice hockey (n = 4), soccer (n = 5), basketball (n = 4), baseball/softball (n = 4), and lacrosse (n = 5). The rate ratio was calculated as the incidence rate in female athletes/male athletes for each concussion mechanism or activity. Data were pooled using the DerSimonian-Laird random-effects model. Study quality was assessed with the Newcastle-Ottawa Scale.
Female athletes were at lower risk of player-contact-induced concussions in lacrosse (pooled rate ratio 0.33 [95% CI 0.25 to 0.43]; p < 0.001), basketball (pooled rate ratio 0.86 [95% CI 0.76 to 0.97]; p = 0.01), ice hockey (pooled rate ratio 0.64 [95% CI 0.56 to 0.73]; p < 0.001), soccer (pooled rate ratio 0.70 [95% CI 0.66 to 0.75]; p < 0.001), and soccer heading (pooled rate ratio 0.80 [95% CI 0.72 to 0.90]; p < 0.001); in these sports, men were at higher risk of concussions from player contact. Female athletes were more likely to experience concussions because of ball or equipment contact in lacrosse (pooled rate ratio 3.24 [95% CI 2.10 to 4.99]; p < 0.001), soccer (pooled rate ratio 2.04 [95% CI 1.67 to 2.49]; p < 0.001), and soccer heading (pooled rate ratio 2.63 [95% CI 1.84 to 3.77]; p < 0.001).
The mechanism or activity underlying concussions differs between male and female athletes across different sports. This finding remains the same regardless of whether there are rule differences between the men’s and women’s games. The implementation of other interventions are required to further ensure player safety, including protective head equipment, concussion prevention training, or rules limiting player contact in the men’s game.
Level of Evidence
Level III, retrospective study.