By Dr. Donna Duffy
Director of CWHW Program for the Advancement of Girls and Women in Sport and Physical Activity and Assistant Professor of Kinesiology
Dr. Chris Rhea
Associate Professor of Kinesiology
Serving as Co-Directors of the Behavior and Recovery After Head Impact and Neurotrauma (BRAIN): The Female BRAIN Project at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Since the passage of Title IX, which mandated equal sport opportunities among men and women, female athletes are continuing to challenge sport participation stereotypes. The result has been more interest by female athletes to participate in sports that were traditionally reserved for men, including collision type sports (e.g. tackle football and rugby). Currently there are 28 leagues in seven countries supporting American tackle football for women; in addition, rugby is one of the fastest growing female sports, with over 1.7 million female participants worldwide.
While these opportunities are generally viewed as being positive for women, there has also been an increase in the number of sport-related injuries women experience, including concussion. On average, concussion incident rates are higher in women's sports than in men’s sports. While there may be both anatomical and behavioral reasons to explain the higher rates of concussion among female athletes, the fact is that most of what we know about the diagnosis, recovery and treatment of concussions are based largely on male experiences, and the female experience has been largely ignored. In general, concussion is one of the more difficult medical conditions to diagnose due to the nature of impact and vast differences between individual athletes and because of the unexplored sex differences among female and male athletes.
The Female BRAIN Project, now in its fourth year of data collection, is focused on the behavioral and mechanistic variable-based performance changes experienced by female athletes who play collision sports. Initially, the Female BRAIN Project focused on the two semi-pro women’s tackle football teams in North Carolina: the Carolina Phoenix and the Carolina Queens. Recently, we have expanded our project to include women’s rugby (all levels of play) and women’s flat track roller derby. Our research related to rugby has focused on: (1) the experiences of female rugby players who were "forced out" of rugby due to head injury, and (2) players perceptions, thoughts and ideas about how to increase player safety to avoid head injury during competitive play. Data collection and analysis for both of these research projects are on-going.
Over the past four years, our research team has determined that sex-specific guidelines are necessary for female athletes when it comes to the Return to Play, Return to Learn and Return to Play guidelines. Our ongoing research to understand how to better prevent and treat concussion in female athletes now includes collecting bio markers and neuroimaging.
In addition, we have also established some exciting collaborations with colleagues at other universities and organizations including Boston University, LSU, Temple University, Utah State, the Women’s GridIron Foundation, and the Women's Rugby Coaches and Referees Association (WRCRA).
The Female BRAIN Project and WRCRA will work together to create educational materials and talking points for rugby coaches and administrators in an effort to help their departments and athletes better understand the experiences of girls/women and concussion injury. It’s important that we work from a more thorough understanding of the data to address the misconceptions about concussion and the perceived dangers of rugby to girls and women.