The rise in the number of girls and young women playing AFL has brought with it a rise in serious injuries on the field.
- Injuries for women in football are increasing, particularly concussion, ruptured ACLs, and fractured wrists
- Reporting of concussion is happening more, but there’s a six-fold increase reported for women, compared to three-fold for men
- Experts say we cannot continue to rely on American research and must invest in Australian work
Concussion, ruptured ACLs and fractured wrists are among the many injuries being seen at the school, club and professional level.
Coaches are working to build strength and educate their players on how to protect themselves during play, and there are calls for more funding for research.
More concussion, ruptured ACLs and fractured wrists
Kate Chapman loves AFL, but far more than watching the game, she loves playing it.
“It’s quite an electric feeling doing something that you haven’t really done before, or the girls you’re up against are quite new to it,” she told The World Today.
“So being on the field is really nice. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
The 17-year-old Adelaide teenager played her first season of Aussie Rules at high school, but she suffered concussion during a game.
“I got a hold of the ball and started running down a side of field, and she swept her legs out from underneath me and I landed on top of my head and neck,” she recalled.
“I must have blacked out when I fell, but I got up and tried to continue playing.”
Kate came off the field and was checked over by medicos, but later felt unwell and went to hospital.
Luckily, aside from a bloody nose in the emergency department and a week of headaches, she did not suffer permanent damage.
It was only on reflection in the months after the incident that she considered the seriousness of her injury.
Kate is now in pre-season training with the Mt Lofty football club in the Adelaide Hills.
She is concentrating on building skills and preparing her body for getting knocked about on the field — as is her coach.
Barrie Brian has been coaching footy for 30 years, but this is his first women’s team.
“What surprised me about watching girls and women’s football was about how physically aggressive they are — both their attack on the opponent, but also on the ball,” he said.
It has focused him on teaching his players to be fitter mentally and physically as well as how to protect themselves.
“Strengthening our core, strengthening our quad muscles, hamstring muscles, landing. And things like concussion, it’s a contact sport and injuries are going to happen, but just to hopefully teach the girls how to protect themselves so they’re not putting their heads and necks at risk any more than they have to.”
‘We can’t keep relying on North American research’
The commonest injury that James Rice, a rehabilitation paediatrician at Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital, sees is sports-related concussion.
Dr Rice told The World Today there had been a surge in hospital admissions for girls playing contact sports like footy in the past two years.
“When these events occur, the greatest impact is in the early recognition and removing that child from the field of play, and then seeking appropriate medical assessment,” Dr Rice said.
Research is limited, but there is evidence that women experience a higher rate of concussion than men, as well as being six times at greater risk of an ACL injury.
The seriousness of the injuries is not to be underestimated, with Adelaide state footballer Maggie Varcoe dying after sustaining a head injury during a grand final in August.
Alan Pearce, an Associate Professor in neuroscience at LaTrobe University, said medics were seeing women with some more serious symptoms, that appeared to last longer.
“Some research just out of Canada suggests that there’s a three-fold increase in concussion rates in men, but there’s a six-fold increase in women, and again that comes back to reporting,” Professor Pearce said.
“So we do need to have athletes and coaches and support staff to be honest about reporting concussions.”
Researchers are looking into the physiological and psychological factors that may result in higher injuries in women who play footy.
But Professor Pearce says Australia needs to boost its research in this area dramatically.
“We are well behind the United States who are investing over $100 million in this area of research alone, just in concussion.
“We are lucky to be probably investing $3-5 million dollars overall,” he said.
He believes greater investment will be critical as more girls and women take up the sport.
“We can’t keep relying on North American research, particularly from American football or American sports,” Professor Pearce said.
“They obviously have equipment differences, there’s different strategies and rules.
“Unfortunately we just don’t have the support here in Australia to do this particular research, particularly when it’s such an important issue in terms of brain health.”