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Can Birth Control Help Female Athletes Recover from Concussions?

According to a new pilot study from Northwestern Medicine, female athletes who suffer concussions during the phase of their menstrual cycles when progesterone is highest feel less stress. While feeling stressed is one of the many symptoms of a concussion, feeling less stressed is a sign of recovery. Researchers also found that the physiological reason for the neural protection is increased blood flow to the brain due to higher levels of progesterone.

Amy Herrold, a research assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and co-author of the study said, “Our findings suggest being in the luteal phase (right after ovulation) of the menstrual cycle when progesterone is highest -- or being on contraceptives, which artificially increase progesterone -- may mean athletes won't have as severe symptoms when they have a concussion injury.”

Lead author Jennie Chen, a research assistant professor of radiology at Feinberg notes that “resolving those symptoms is especially problematic for our athletes who are trying to return to school, their sports, and everyday life after a concussion.”

The study included athletes from soccer, ultimate frisbee, crew, triathlon, lacrosse, women's rugby, and tennis clubs. Researchers chose to use club athletes for the study because more college students compete in club athletics than varsity athletics. Additionally, club athletics are not as tightly monitored as varsity athletics, which can potentially lead to increased exposure and under-reporting of concussion incidents.

Researchers assessed 30 female collegiate athletes 3 to 10 days after a concussion or mild TBI using MRI scans to examine brain blood flow, blood tests to examine progesterone levels, and self-reported symptom questionnaires, including the perceived stress questionnaire. After an injured athlete was observed by researchers, a healthy control athlete was matched based on age, ethnicity contraceptive use and type, and menstrual cycle phase and enrolled in the study.

The research team at Northwestern found increased blood flow in the brain when a female athlete had a higher level of progesterone due to her menstrual cycle phase. The region of the brain, the middle temporal gyrus, is crucial for information processing and integrating visual and auditory stimuli.

Herrold said that when student-athletes recover from a concussion, they get stressed trying to keep up with school work and because they feel like they need to make up for the lost time. According to Herrold, "Their ratings on perceived stress are really important for their overall recovery from the injury and getting back to normal."

Although most research on sports-related concussions has focused on male athletes, this new study addresses a major gap in the literature by studying female club athletes, especially since female and male athletes have different recovery trajectories following a mild traumatic brain injury. Despite the similarities in symptoms, Male athletes have a shorter length of recovery than females.

According to Herrold, doctors and health care professionals treating injured athletes should “consider the phase of the athlete's menstrual cycle and what, if any, hormonal contraceptives.” Both factors can impact progesterone levels and affect brain blood flow and perceived stress. Harold also said that doctors might “want to evaluate wider use of hormonal contraceptives that raise progesterone levels for athletes who are at risk for incurring a concussion or mild TBI as there could be potential for neuroprotection.”

If you or a loved one have suffered a traumatic brain injury and need qualified legal guidance so you can pursue fair compensation, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Scarlett Law Group. Call us today at (415) 688-2176 to request your free initial consultation.

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