For Katherine Price Snedaker, a Norwalk social worker and mother of three, her expertise in concussions has been hard-won.
Her number of concussions is in the double digits, starting with her first diagnosed ones at age 16 and 19 from separate car accidents.
Snedaker is executive director of PinkConcussions.com, a nonprofit devoted to the latest research on concussions among women. She’s also the founder of SportsCAPP.com, a youth sports concussion educational organization, and she is an associate member of the National Sports Concussion Coalition.
Unless you or a loved one has suffered one, a concussion is something of a black hole. Diagnosis and treatments vary. For years, research focused on the male medical model. Even after generations of women flooded the sports playing fields and courts after Title IX – and suffered concussions in record numbers, according to research — concussion treatment for women lagged.
The result, says Snedaker, has often been incorrect diagnoses – and women and girls who suffer needlessly.
“There’s a huge number of women out there with headaches, and some are going to concussion places, and some are going to migraine clinics,” Snedaker said. “Everything’s getting kind of mixed.”
Nascent research shows that female athletes in college experience or report a higher number of concussions, with more severe symptoms that last longer, than their male counterparts in similar sports. A National Collegiate Athletic Association study says that female softball players experienced concussions at double the rate of male baseball players.
Though concussions can occur off the sports field, most studies center on athletes because that’s where research funding is, said Snedaker. More than a few of her head injuries came playing soccer or field hockey.
Research has been hampered, as well, because women may under-report concussions, said Dr. Anthony G. Alessi, a neurologist who has served as a consultant to the NFL, the Connecticut State Boxing Commission, and the Connecticut Sun, among others. Women who get concussed often aren’t injured in high-velocity sports – and education is weak when it comes to concussions in what has traditionally been considered “non-contact sports” like soccer, Alessi said.
In fact, most soccer concussions in girls and women come from head-to-head or head-to-ground impact, said Alessi. For men, it’s more often elbow-to-head. Though it’s not a popular stance for sports “purists,” Alessi suggests one answer might be more liberal use of helmets by student athletes.
“Any time you’re playing a sport where there are sticks involved and balls moving at a high rate of speed, somebody needs to be wearing a helmet,” said Alessi. He said as an associate clinical professor of neurology at the University of Connecticut, he and others are beginning to look at concussions among men and women across multiple disciplines.“We’re doing our best in Connecticut to really start these studies, and look at these sub-populations,” Alessi said.
Public awareness about concussions has increased, aided most recently when San Francisco 49ers football player Chris Borland quit football at age 24 out of concern for potential head injuries. In 2010, Connecticut passed a concussion law that requires more training to recognize and deal with concussions, but that law applied strictly to high school athletes. In February, Snedaker successfully petitioned the Norwalk Common Council to approve guidelines for its 6,000 youth athletes and 700 coaches who use municipal fields, gyms and facilities. Critical to the vote was data compiled by Norwalk school nurses on concussions, which showed that among the K-12 students who reported concussions from August 2014 to January 2015, 41 were females, and 37 were males.
In testimony in favor of subsequent state legislation, Snedaker said that upon her death she’s leaving her brain for research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease found in people who’ve had repetitive brain-trauma like concussions.
Snedaker said she became involved in educating the public about women and concussions because women who’ve been concussed were hungry for information.