Women are more vulnerable to certain injuries, like ACL tears and stress fractures. Here’s why, what you can do to prevent these injuries, and why, as an active woman you should consider seeking care with Tulane Women’s Sports Medicine Program to maintain your health and activity.
Studies show women are more prone than men to some of the most common sport-related injuries. While some information brought to light is still being debated — such as the exact reasons for this gender gap — the mere awareness that the gender gap exists may lead to more studies and the efforts to prevent these injuries.
Most Common Injuries Among Female Athletes
Some of these sports-related injuries are common among both men and women, but others are more often diagnosed in women. For example, a recent ball-contact injury study determined that the sport with the highest ball-contact injury rate was women’s softball. This was followed by women’s field hockey and men’s baseball.
The most common sports injuries in women include:
- Ankle sprain: This is particularly common among women, though men suffer from it frequently, too.
- Tendinitis (tendon inflammation)
- Knee injuries: Knee injuries are especially common among basketball and soccer players. They include patellofemoral syndrome (irritation under the kneecap) and ligament tears, including the big one for women — anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears.
- Stress fractures: These are especially common in the foot or lower leg (tibia).
Click here for our downloadable PDF with exercises to relieve pain from stress fractures.
- Plantar fasciitis. These small tears in the supporting tissues along the arch and heel may be caused by flat feet and other abnormal foot alignments.
- Concussions. One recent study showed that concussions were more often diagnosed in women than men in sports played by both genders, such as basketball, soccer, and baseball/softball.
Why Are Women More Prone to These Injuries?
The most basic explanation is that it’s due to the differences between how the bodies of men and women are built and how they function. Compared to their male athlete counterparts, female athletes typically have:
- Higher estrogen levels
- Less muscle mass
- More body fat
- Looser ligaments, resulting in greater flexibility
- A wider pelvis, which affects the alignment of the knees and ankles
- Slower reflex time in the muscles stabilizing the knee
- A tendency to run upright, which adds stress to the ACL and results in less control over rotation of the knee joint
- Less developed quads, particularly after puberty
Research has attributed injuries to knee structure common to women, i.e., a narrower pathway for the ACL, as well as a number of factors that contribute to bone weakness, the so-called “female athlete triad.” This is a coincidence of inadequate nutrition, irregular menstrual cycles, and bone loss. There’s evidence that underweight female athletes are more likely to suffer from stress fractures.
Another contributing factor is mechanical. Women often move differently than men, for instance, suddenly changing direction on one foot, rather than both, and landing in a more upright position than men usually do.
What Can Active Women Do to Avoid Injury?
Of course, you can’t easily fight anatomy and biology, but further research, awareness, and education of women’s injury risks are essential. It’s crucial to understand why women who are as fit — or more fit — than men still may be vulnerable to certain injuries.
Women can reduce the risk of injury by:
- Strength training, especially the hamstrings and the major muscles in the lower leg if ACL tears are a concern
- Keeping weight at a healthy level to address the female athlete triad
- Training to land from jumps safely
- Training to change direction from both feet, not just one
- Bracing (may limit ankle sprains in particular)
- Providing support and realignment with the right shoes and shoe inserts
- Avoiding overuse and fully recovering from injuries before resuming activity
- Resting adequately between workouts
- Wearing proper protective equipment (headgear, etc.)
- Hydrating before, during, and after practice and workouts
If you’re worried about a sports injury or have already sustained one, consider a visit to the Tulane Women’s Sports Medicine Program. Our professionals can assess and treat injuries, and work with you to prevent them in the first place. Contact us to learn more about the program, or to schedule an appointment.