Zoey McKenzie
Zoey McKenzie sustained a concussion in February 2018 when she slipped on a patch of ice while retrieving groceries from her car. (Photo: The KITE Research Institute at UHN)

Zoey McKenzie never imagined that she – a young woman who didn't play sports – would ever get a concussion. It was an injury that happened to running backs and hockey players, little children and frail seniors, not a 28-year-old policy analyst who rarely overexerted herself in any dangerous way.

Yet, in February 2018, while retrieving groceries from her car at her apartment in Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood, she stepped on a slippery patch of ice. Her feet flew straight up, her groceries soared through the air, and Zoey landed headfirst on the concrete.

She knew immediately that something was wrong. "I couldn't stop crying," she recalls, so stunned she could hardly feel the pain. Later that night, Zoey was driven to a nearby emergency room, where a doctor referred her to Toronto Rehab. It was there, on the same night, that she was told she had a concussion.

It was a frightening diagnosis, she says, and questions began swirling in her head as it throbbed: When will the pain stop? Will this affect my body, my ability to do my job? How long until I feel better? As Zoey soon found out, there's no easy way to answer those questions, as every concussion is different. Making things more complicated is that women take twice as long as men to recover, for reasons that remain unclear.

Delving into gender differences

Understanding the differences in how men and women react to head trauma is becoming increasingly urgent for researchers at KITE, the research arm at Toronto Rehab. According to a study conducted by UHN, 1.3 million Ontarians experienced concussion symptoms between 2006 and 2018, which is double what was originally thought. It's become the most common mild traumatic brain injury sustained by Canadians.

The incidence of concussion is going to increase, too, as more people are recognizing the symptoms and getting diagnosed. As well, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of women getting diagnosed with concussions, particularly in emergency rooms, according to research from KITE. Columbia University in New York found that women were 50 per cent more likely to sustain sports-related concussions than men.

For Dr. Angela Colantonio, a leader in the field of traumatic brain injury research and a senior scientist at KITE, better understanding the gender differences around concussions is key to helping everyone who might be affected by one.

"Taking a gender- and sex-based perspective isn't just about women," she says. "It's about producing better science for all sexes and genders."

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