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Female high school athletes will be part of 2 programs studying concussions in Michigan

Aug 27, 2015

This fall, Michigan high schools are testing two different programs for detecting concussions in high school athletes.  

Girls’ sports are getting equal attention.

Earlier this week, Carmen-Ainsworth high school faced off against Kearsley High School in their volleyball season opener. 

Players from Carman Ainsworth HS face off against Kearsley HS is an early season volleyball match
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Anyone who thinks volleyball is not a contact sport hasn’t seen a girls high school volleyball game. 

Players collide on the court.  They fall to the hardwood diving for balls.  And of course, players have balls spiked at their faces by the opposing team. 

It can even be rough in practice.

“We just had a girl fall in tryouts….and hit her head on the ground," says Kearsley H.S. player  Karmen Bishoff,  "But we’ve been fortunate enough not to be put into the situation where we have hit our head or collided during a game.  But it has come close."

Bishoff and a few of her Kearsley High School teammates say they’ve never suffered a concussion. 

But starting this fall, they’re subjects in a statewide test.

Kearsley is one of 70 high schools in Michigan testing two new concussion protocols.  

Football has the highest incidence of players suffering concussions. But girls’ sports, including soccer, cheerleading and volleyball, also have a significant rate of concussions.

Marjorie Snyder is research director with the Women’s Sports Foundation.  She says there is not a lot of research on the long term effects of concussions on female athletes.

“A lot of the short term things we know about concussions are certainly frightening in among themselves that we wouldn’t want to wait for another 10 or 20 years to see what the long term effects are," says Snyder.

The new protocols involve testing an athlete’s cognitive ability before the season.  Then comparing those test results with new tests conducted after a player may have suffered a concussion. 

The Michigan High School Athletic Association organized this year’s two concussion pilot tests.   The association mandated that the schools taking part must include an equal number of boys and girls sports.

Jack Roberts is the association’s executive director.   He says concussions are an "equal opportunity problem" in sports.

“We’re especially concerned about girls’ soccer," Roberts cites as an exmaple. "The heading and the head-to-head contact are a concern to us.”

Concussions are more likely for girls than boys in high school basketball.
Credit Duffy / Michigan Radio

Research has shown high school girls soccer players have a higher concussion rate than boys.  The same is true for high school basketball.     

U of M researcher Kathryn O’Connor works in the neuro-trauma laboratory.  

She recently published a study on concussions among male and female college athletes. 

O’Connor says she’s seen a difference between the ways male and female athletes acknowledge concussions, knowing that coaches may put them on the bench if they’ve had a concussion.

“Males may be more apt to hide symptoms.  Knowing that if they are honest and report things they may be held out longer," says O'Connor. "It is definitely something that is in the back of our minds that female athletes have had less time to ‘game’ the system or think that they should ‘game’ the system.”

The new concussion tests may make it more difficult for all athletes to hide concussions. 

The pilot testing of the new concussion protocols will continue for the next two years.  But there are no plans for the Michigan High School Athletic Association to mandate the testing in all sports.  

The MHSAA's Jack Roberts says the two pilot programs present a learning experience. 

“The schools are going to learn more about concussion detection, to be sure.  But so are those developing these systems," says Roberts. "They are going to find out ways they can make them more adaptable to the high school level that doesn’t have a lot of medical experts standing on the sidelines like the college and professional level would."

That would be helpful to schools that don’t have enough trained professionals to be on the sidelines for both boys and girls sports.