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Why women’s ice hockey has a higher concussion rate than football

When college athletes play the same sport, women report concussions more often than men.

At the 2014 Winter Olympics, Josephine Pucci won a silver medal playing for the US women’s hockey team. Later that year, she retired.

Why? Concussions.

Pucci is not alone. Several prominent female players, including Pucci’s former teammates Caitlin Cahow and current US Olympian Amanda Kessel, have struggled with concussions at some point during their career.

The result has been an increased push for concussion safety awareness in women’s ice hockey. Just this month, Kessel’s teammate Angela Ruggiero, along with former Canadian Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, announced a decision to donate their brains to science in the hopes of improving concussion research. For her part, Pucci is working to raise awareness as co-founder of the Headway Foundation.

It’s a movement that has been bolstered by a growing body of scientific evidence: In the past two decades, several different surveys have found that collegiate women’s hockey players are reporting concussions at a higher rate than many male athletes, including football players. In fact, researchers have determined that the discrepancy extends beyond ice hockey to all sports. In basketball, soccer, and other gender-comparable sports, female athletes consistently report a higher concussion rate than men. In 2012, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine released a position statement that “in sports with similar playing rules, the reported incidence of concussion is higher in female athletes than in male athletes.”

Josephine Pucci competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The reason, however, remains a mystery.

For experts like Zachary Kerr, an assistant professor in the Department of Excercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina, a crucial question is whether the high rate of concussions is due to differences in reporting, as opposed to physiological factors. For former players like Pucci, style of play and gender bias are also important considerations.

What nearly all experts agree on is that the explanation probably involves several distinct social, cultural, and physiological factors. A quick survey of the research being done includes considerations of reporting bias and playing style, but also extends to hormonal differences, neck strength, and nerve fiber structure.

To learn how these factors might influence the high rate of concussions and what other explanations are being researched, make sure to watch the video above.

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