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 7 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 female’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 a concussion are based largely on male experiences, and the female experience has been largely ignored. Concussions are 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.

Dr. Donna Duffy, Director of CWHW Program for the Advancement of Girls and Women in Sport and Physical Activity, and Dr. Chris Rhea, associate professor of Kinesiology are the Co-Directors of the Behavior and Recovery After head Impact and Neurotrauma (BRAIN): The Female BRAIN Project. This project, now in its fourth year of data collection, is focused on the neuromotor and neurocognitive performance changes experienced by post-collegiate 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.

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.

We have also established some exciting collaborations with colleagues at other universities and organizations including Boston University, LSU, Temple University, Utah State, the US Women’s Rugby Foundation, the Women’s GridIron Foundation and Greensboro Roller Derby.

We continue to apply for internal and external funding to support our research efforts including National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Image source: Rutgers University