Football authorities can’t afford to ignore female athletes’ health concerns like they did with dementia and heading the ball after the influential skipper highlighted the little-known fact that suffering a concussion can contribute to increased menstrual pain. We need sex-disaggregated sports medical research in 2023, says columnist Laura Lawrence.
Lionesses captain Leah Williamson has been recognised in King Charles’ first New Year honours list for her services to sport, but we also have to appreciate the vital contribution she made this week to increasing the visibility of women’s health issues that are so poorly understood in sport.
The 25-year-old was one of four England stars, along with Beth Mead, Ellen White and Lucy Bronze, and their manager Sarina Wiegman, to be given awards after guiding them to the stunning Euro 2022 triumph in the summer. It’s a victory that has the power to transform women’s football in the UK.
And proving to also be a leader off the pitch, Williamson has now highlighted little-known facts about oft-hidden conditions such as endometriosis, as well as the impact concussion has on period pain, in a candid interview with Women’s Health magazine. The European champion opened up about her endometriosis diagnosis and how it seriously affects not only her preparation for matches — including the Wembley final — but performances on the pitch.
Where women’s football dares to be different is to address issues with thought and care, especially around health. In men’s football, we rarely speak about anything other than injuries and occasionally about the impact of mental health.
In the interview, the Arsenal defender addressed her own struggles. Endometriosis is a condition where tissue builds up around the reproductive organs, and other areas of the body such as the bowel and bladder. Like a period, it bleeds every month but with no way for the blood to escape. It is a painful and debilitating condition that can lead to infertility.Embed from Getty Images
Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, was admitted to hospital this year too for an emergency hysterectomy because of an “ongoing battle” with the disease. Endometritis is notoriously difficult to get a diagnosis for. Many women are initially sent away from GPs with nothing more than the words ‘it’s just a heavy period’ or suggestions to have the contraceptive coil fitted — a torture device of its own.
What was most startling about Williamson’s interview is not that she feared she wouldn’t be able to play in the Euros because of the pain, but that a recent concussion contributed to an increase in menstrual pain.
“Before the Euros I had a concussion, which they say can really impact your next period, and it was bad – like, really bad. You know when you’re on the bathroom floor and literally like, ‘I can’t move.'” When it’s too late to take the tablets because I’m, like, in it now.”
With concussions more likely in contact sports such as football, Williamson has highlighted a health issue unknown to most people.
The England captain added: “You get to a certain age when you actually say, ‘This is a really big f**king problem.’ I’m pretty sure if men had periods we would have figured out a way to stop them by now without doing any damage.”Embed from Getty Images
And while this may be construed as a flippant remark, it’s a deadly serious issue that medical research is skewed towards the male body even for female conditions. In Caroline Criado Perez’s 2019 book, Invisible women, she dedicates whole chapters to women’s health and how there are huge data gaps in research with women being assessed as ‘small men’ physiologically and identified as ‘atypical.’
When general medicine is unlikely to identify and research health conditions specifically for women then what hope do we have that sports science is plugging that gap? ACL injuries are more prevalent in female athletes, as Arsenal can attest to with Mead and Vivianne Miedema currently out for months with ruptured ACLs, while equipment designed for men and not women is also putting them at risk.
What cannot be allowed to happen is for sports authorities to ignore women’s health concerns in the way the FA did with the connection between early onset dementia and heading the ball. It would be negligent of these authorities to not encourage sex-disaggregated sports medical research in the new year. With periods, the pill, postnatal and postpartum performances, we don’t know what women are capable of withstanding on the pitch and how much they are putting up with now that we could prevent.
Follow Laura on Twitter @YICETOR