Wales Rugby: Trailblazing technology tracks impact of menstrual cycle on concussion during Six Nations

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Wales Rugby are pioneering a trial of groundbreaking technology which tracks the impact of the menstrual cycle on concussions to help female athletes better manage their symptoms.

The new concussion module will track symptoms including headaches and nausea as well as monitoring recovery to help players maximise their performance by providing in-depth information about their bodies.

Evidence suggests if a player sustains a concussion during the luteal phase of a menstrual cycle, when their progesterone is higher, their symptoms might be prolonged and more severe than their male counterparts.

“I’ve had concussions in the past and we didn’t have the technology back then, and it would’ve been beneficial to understand if what I was going through and feeling was normal,” said Wales’ second row Natalia John, who was injured during a fixture against Canada in 2021.

“I wasn’t sure if it was my cycle or something else, so now being able to have that understanding I know if I’m having a bad day and I can look after myself better.”

Players are able to input updates about their health into an app developed with Vodafone which is then assessed by the team medics and fitness experts in real time to intervene quicker and capture trends for individual players.

The technology is being used throughout the Women’s Six Nations and it is hoped that the information gathered will help assist Wales for the World Cup next year.

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Flanker Alisha Joyce-Butchers (L) and Wales’ head physiotherapist Jo Perkins (R) discuss the latest concussion feature

“People often associate periods as being something bad but you can manipulate it to be good and get the best out of your performance,” said Wales captain Hannah Jones.

“Personally for me it’s been really helpful. There’s some phases during my menstrual cycle where I feel really good and I can push during training and manipulate my personal bests.

“But when I don’t feel so great I know why and there’s a plan put in place where my nutritionist tells me what supplements I need to take to ensure I’m getting the right support.

“There’s definitely a gap in the market and because of the lack of research out there, Wales will be the first to have access to it and that will help our future athletes.”

England’s World Cup winner Phil Vickery and former Wales fly-half Gavin Henson are among more than 200 retired rugby male players suing World Rugby, England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) for failing to put in place reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of players.

This alleged failure is alleged to have led to disorders such as motor neurone disease, early onset dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

The data tracking has helped head physio Jo Perkins, who previously worked in men’s rugby, to detect any underlying health issues the players may have – such as endometriosis.

Natalia John suffered a concussion in 2021
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Natalia John suffered a concussion in 2021

Through period tracking Wales scrum-half Ffion Lewis found out she had been suffering with endometriosis and her condition was so severe that it almost left her infertile.

Lewis credits Perkins for helping her get a diagnosis after the physio was able to help detect irregularities in her data and flagged it.

Perkins sees the menstrual cycle as giving the women’s game some advantage in tracking players’ wellbeing compared to the men’s game. If a period becomes absent then it could be a sign that a player is severely lacking in energy, and the team can then adapt their training accordingly, whereas similar problems might be more difficult to spot in the men’s game.

Only nine per cent of global sport science is dedicated to female sport, so the new technology will be groundbreaking in introducing different developments that will protect female players.

“Our game has evolved so much and this app has been a huge part of that process,” said flanker Alisha Joyce-Butchers.

“We have a full female phsyio team at Wales Rugby and that makes things so much better because the girls are a lot more comfortable with addressing health concerns.

“This is the kind of one-per-cent stuff that is going to make us better and allow us to continue to climb that ladder to become the best team.

“A lot of us girls didn’t track our periods before this, but we’ve been really diligent with it and we’re able to see where we should have a lighter day in the gym. It’s the little things that make a huge difference.”

Players are able to input data about their health into an app which is tracked by team medics
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Players are able to input data about their health into an app which is tracked by team medics

Research has shown that women are more susceptible to an anterior cruciate ligament injury during the first couple of days of their menstrual cycle, and being able to have this data on hand for each athlete can allow coaches to manipulate training for maximum output.

However, there remain some concerns about players wearing white shorts.

“There’s a mixed vibe within the group – some players have said they feel fine and others have said they would like to change from white shorts,” said Jones.

“We wear period pants under our white shorts and that really helps us, but it isn’t for everyone.”

England’s women footballers openly raised concerns about wearing all-white strips, with blue shorts being introduced last year, while at club level Manchester City and West Brom also moved from white shorts for darker colours.

Whether it is advances in technology or changes in kit, women’s sport is shifting for the better.

The changes that are implemented in women’s rugby today could help protect the players in the future, and while Wales may be the first to implement this, it is hoped these innovations will soon be used across all women’s sport.

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