Female Athletes and Concussions: Why is it Still So Under-Researched?
The unfortunate reality is that concussion research largely excludes female athletes according to a 2022 study in which female athletes were woefully underrepresented in 171 studies and where 80.1% of the participants were male.
While male and female athletes share similarities, they can differ in many biomechanical, physiological, and neuroanatomical ways that can affect concussion care and recovery. This is why it is important to address gender differences in diagnosis and care.
The overall lack of research on female athletes remains a crucial issue and means that safety protocols put in place today are not always appropriate for female athletes.
Gender Inequality in Concussion Research
Historically, sport injury research has been biased towards men. In fact, the NIH wasn’t even legally required to include women and minorities in clinical research until 1993! Thus far, we’ve taken data, primarily from studies on men, and tried to apply them to women. As mentioned above, this must change.
The good news is that the gender gap in men’s and women’s participation in professional sport is starting to close. And because concussions do not discriminate based on gender, we owe a duty of care to all athletes. The bottom line is that if you’re not caring for your athletes, they’re not going to be on the pitch. Committing to the highest levels of care keeps all players in the game, and a rising tide lifts all boats.
Are Female Athletes at Higher Risk of Injury?
According to a 2021 study that analyzed concussions across all 23 men’s and women’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) varsity sports, the highest sports-related concussion rates among females were in women’s soccer (7.15 per 10,000 AEs).
Perhaps of greater concern is another study that found concussions increased in women’s volleyball and soccer over the five-year period, while the last year of the study saw a “notable increase” in concussions in women’s ice hockey.
Are female athletes more prone to concussions or are other factors at play? Studies show that biomechanical differences in women (e.g., weaker and smaller neck size) and physiological differences (e.g., hormonal levels, menstrual cycle) can make female athletes more prone to traumatic brain injuries.
Clearly, continuing research in this area, as well as research on female sports as a whole is needed to keep a full, healthy roster of high-performing players in the game.
The Under-Resourcing of Women’s Sport Affects Care
The level of athlete care available to women’s and men’s teams can be very different. Oftentimes, it’s determined by numbers—fan base, sponsorships, views, game revenue, and more. A 2022 NCAA report on The State of Women in College Sports found that while the number of women competing at the highest level of college athletics is rising, there is also an increasing funding gap between men’s and women’s sports.
An excellent model for gender equality is evident across Scandinavia where both male and female teams from U9 to the First Team get the same type of care that’s deemed appropriate for the age group.
The State of Concussion Research on Women Today
The field of concussion research has come a long way since the 1990s. And while new research is undertaken each year, we all have a responsibility to better understand brain trauma and its impact on male and female athletes respectively. For example, national governing bodies are conducting their own research, often in conjunction with experts or universities, to help shape guidance around injuries.
At the same time, the industry is also making progress in concussion diagnosis and return-to-play protocols for better injury management.
Some of the concussion research focused on women in sport include:
- Inequities in male vs. female participation and funding in college sports. NCAA Title IX “The State of Women in College Sports” reports shows gains in female participation, but inequitable spending on men’s and women’s athletic programs
- Mouthguard sensors to detect injury. Women’s Rugby World Cup players will wear “smart” mouthguards to help better understand and reduce concussions in the game.
- Neck strength in relation to concussions. A research study shows how neck strength can predict concussion risk.
- Menstrual cycle and concussions. A look at how the menstrual cycle influences concussion recovery and outcomes.
Although there is research being done, it is still not enough. Studies such as the one on menstrual cycle and concussions are from 2013 and need additional research. And while men’s research on the subject spans decades, women’s research in this area has far fewer years. With less research available, and without a larger effort made, care for female athletes will continue to fall behind.
If your organization is interested in partnering with Kitman Labs Performance Intelligence Research Initiative (PIRI) on concussion research, or you’re aware of other research happening on this topic, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog is part of an ongoing series (see earlier blog: Concussion Awareness is the First Step Towards Safer Sport) where we share valuable insights from Kitman Labs’ team of Performance Experts. These experts have extensive experience working with hundreds of elite teams around the world and hold diverse backgrounds in coaching, medical, sports science, and data science.
To learn more about how analytics can assist with sport-related injuries, or Concussion 360, email email@example.com.
Applied Product Expert
at Kitman Labs
PhD in Sports Medicine Concussion, and Senior Performance Strategist at Kitman Labs
Applied Product Expert Kitman Labs