Concussion: Research probes higher proportion, lasting affects of head injuries among female athletes

Medical researchers believe female athletes are disadvantaged by the lack of study done on the female brain.

On average, sportswomen face not only more concussions, but also a longer recovery time and many believe this could be avoided, if organisations like NZ Rugby did more. 

While the dangers of rugby concussions have been spotlighted in recent years, one group is still neglected. 

"All the research that has been done is on males and the male recovery," says clinical nurse Dr Doug King. 

For years, no-one knew why females, in particular, had suffered lingering effects after a concussion, but recent studies show it depends on where the athlete is on their menstrual cycle, which constantly fills the brain with different hormones.

"People often just associate the sex hormones with the reproduction and the ovaries, but actually, they are very power biochemical messagers that influence every part of the body," says AUT sports and recreation reasearcher Natalie Hardaker.

According NZ Rugby statistics, nearly 2000 female rugby players have filed accident compensation claims after concussion since 2017. For every 1000 hours of playing, males suffer an average of just over 13 concussions, while females suffer nearly 21.and are more likely to have ongoing side effects.  

NZ Rugby has begun studying this further, but Dr King believes it isn’t being totally truthful with its findings, prompting him to fund his own study. 

"They get to say what's being written, they get to say what's being published and I believe we should have independent voices," he says.  

This isn't the first time it has faced such accusations. In 2016, NZR and Auckland University delivered the results of a study into the health of retired rugby players, and King believes NZR didn't want to share its side of the data.

"If you don't say what they want you to say, you will be cut out," says Dr King.

NZ Rugby and Auckland University refute this, but admit the findings sparked some "robust discussion".

NZ Rugby has hired Dr Danielle Salmon to research concussion and explains that's no longer the case. 

"I can't speak for the past, but my sole role is I’ve been brought on as a research scientist and we've been leading a discussion study for the last three years," she says. "NZR is 100 perecent committed to this cause." 

There does seem to be hope throughout the process. 

"It's not necessarily that females take longer to recover," says Hardaker. "It's just that we don't fully understand yet what that recovery process is." 

Until then, we are all excited to see more wahine on our fields, but only time will tell the toll.