Bouncing Breasts Intrigue Scientists, Too

By Ross Pomeroy

Common stereotypes would suggest that teenage males would be the only lot to take a marked interest in bouncing breasts. Not so. Scientists do as well.

Meet Doctor Joanna Scurr, the biomechanics division leader at the University of Portsmouth. Since 2005, she has actively researched female breast biomechanics -- how breasts move. This has led to novel insights in the production of appropriate breast support for women.

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Most people, when hearing about Scurr's area of research, approach the subject discreetly. But Scurr loves to be up front about her work.

"At conferences when I am asked what I study I say 'bouncing breasts' rather than breast biomechanics. It makes people laugh nervously but they always want to know more," she says.

Female breasts are primarily composed of skin, subcutaneous fat tissue, and the corpus mammae, a collection of glandular and fibrous tissue. Since there are no muscles in the breast, the onus of support falls to the skin and Cooper's Ligaments -- thin sheets of fibrous tissue that attach to the pectoralis major muscle. 

The problem is that these tissues aren't naturally proficient at supporting any amount of free weight, so when women engage in moderate to vigorous exercise such as running or jumping, or when they simply walk, the breasts tend to move, sometimes as much as 21 centimeters. This movement causes tension on the skin and ligaments, which can be painful. As many as 72% of women report exercise-related breast pain. In addition, exercise-induced breast movement can cause permanent stretching of the connective tissues, contributing to ptosis, or breast sagging.

"Breast size and pain caused by exercise can be a real barrier to women doing exercise," Scurr says.

Scurr believes that one solution to this problem is appropriate breast support in the form of encapsulation or compression sports bras, which can reduce breast movement by more than 50%. Another solution is to educate women on proper bra fitting, since as many as 70% of women are reported to be wearing an incorrect bra size.

Formed in 2008, Scurr's Breast Health Research Group has helped instruct methods to test the functionality of sports bras. The group has also demonstrated that breasts don't just move up and down but also move in and out and side to side, revealing the necessity for bra-makers to design bras with multidimensional support.

When walking, a woman's breasts will usually move equally in all dimensions, Scurr says. But when running or jogging, this pattern changes. 51% of movement is up and down; 22% side to side and 27% in and out, forming a figure eight.

Scurr's latest study, appearing in the July issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, examined multidimensional breast movement, velocity, and acceleration in 48 female bare-breasted runners with varying cup sizes. Data was obtained using state-of-the-art motion capture equipment and computer analysis. The results showed differences in movement across a range of breast sizes and will inform the design and evaluation of new bras.

Intriguingly, Scurr is also currently involved in projects looking to use biotechnology and advanced fabrics for the development of "intelligent breast support."

Through her trailblazing work, Dr. Joanna Scurr is shunning taboos and, in doing so, helping women of all shapes and sizes achieve higher qualities of life.

"Our research... could not only help sports performance and recreational athletes," Scurr says in an online video. "[It] could also help the everyday woman who experiences breast pain."

Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor of RealClearScience.

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