With the predominance of male athletes featured on television and covered in the media year-round, most Americans are familiar with some of the most common injuries sustained by men in various sports. As the 2012 Summer Games approaches, female athletes will have additional opportunities to be featured, but are their potential injury risks the same as their male counterparts?
"Women are more likely to have a different set of injuries because of the types of sports they play or due to inherent differences in anatomy or muscle control and responses," says Dr. Kim Templeton, an orthopedic surgeon at The University of Kansas Hospital and Professor of Orthopedic Surgery in the University School of Medicine. "Women can help reduce their potential for an injury by understanding these differences and attempting to modify those factors that can be addressed, such as relative weakness of some muscles or avoiding positions that place them at higher risk for injury."
Dr. Templeton, who is senior editor and co-author of the upcoming book "Women's Sports Injuries," lists the following injuries as most common for female athletes.
- ACL Tears: The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a tight band of tissue that binds together the bones in the knee to keep the joint stable. While men typically tear this ligament as a result of direct contact, women are more likely to tear it due to the positions in which they land. This injury is common among female soccer and basketball players, the latter primarily due to the way they inherently land from a jump. When landing with their hips and knees straight, this forces the knee to straighten beyond its natural range, causing the ACL to pull apart.
One way to help prevent this injury is to build up strong hamstrings, which will take pressure off the ACL. Another strategy is to learn different landing techniques, especially those where the hips and knees are bent.
- Concussions: Concussions occur more frequently in women than in men, for those sports played by both genders. As with the other sports-related injuries, there are probably several factors that lead to this, including weaker neck muscles in women to absorb impact and stabilize the head, differences in inherent preparation for contact around the head and a greater difference between the size of the head and the size of the ball for sports such as soccer. Responses to concussions also differ between the sexes, with men and women showing different areas of deficits in the short and long term after the injury. The first concussion increases the risk of sustaining a second concussion. Athletes, families and coaches need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of concussions. Athletes need to be kept out of practice and competition until these signs and symptoms are resolved.
- "Runners Knee" or Anterior Knee Pain Syndrome: This is caused by irritation of the cartilage on the undersurface of the kneecap and is more common in women due to the alignment of the pelvis and legs and also due to inherent, relative differences in muscle strength. To avoid runner's knee, use proper running shoes with adequate support. In addition, focus on strengthening the quadriceps, the muscles in front of the thigh that straighten your knee and control your knee cap. For women, it is also important to strengthen the muscles that turn your hip out, as this will help with the positioning of the knee cap during activities.
- Stress Fractures: They are small cracks in a bone, often developed from overuse and/or low bone mass. Stress fractures occur when bone is not allowed the time necessary to recuperate from the impact of sports activities, especially if athletes rapidly increase their training or change running surfaces. Stress fractures are also more common in women with low bone mass, as it does not respond and strengthen as quickly in response to increasing activities levels, as normal bone. Stress fractures can likely be prevented by gradually increasing activity, building strong, sturdy calves that absorb the shock around your bones, wearing well-cushioned sports shoe that are in good condition and developing healthy bone habits (e.g., taking in enough calories to support the athlete's level of activity, adequate calcium and vitamin D intake).
- Sprained Ankle: Ankle sprains occur more commonly in female than male basketball players. These can be caused by simply rolling your ankle – whether by landing wrong on an uneven surface or due to increased friction between your shoes and the playing surface. Differences between men and women in terms of this injury are most likely due to differences in how the pelvis and legs are aligned, as well as differences in how loose ligaments are. Strengthening and balancing exercises can help avoid a sprained ankle. These exercises are especially important for those athletes who have had a prior ankle sprain, as this places them at higher risk of an addition ankle injury. For those with prior injuries, examine the position in which the sprain occurred and focus on maneuvers that avoid that movement.
- Meniscus Tears: The meniscus is a rubbery, c-shaped disc that cushions your knee. The two menisci in each knee help keep your knee steady by balancing your weight across the knee. To help prevent meniscus tears, work on stretching and strengthening your legs.
If an injury does occur, Dr. Templeton recommends discussing this with your health care professional. For minor injuries of the legs, the commonly used RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) protocol may be all that is needed. Continued pain after a few days suggests a follow-up with your local doctor. More significant injuries will need additional evaluation and treatment.
- Rest. Take a break from the activity that caused the injury. Your doctor may recommend that you use crutches to avoid putting weight on your leg.
- Ice. Use cold packs for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. Do not apply ice directly to the skin.
- Compression. To prevent additional swelling, wear an elastic compression bandage (not too tight, more compression isn't necessarily better).
- Elevation. To reduce swelling, recline when you rest, and put your leg up higher than your heart.
The University of Kansas Hospital