Title IX, a law that banned any form of sex-based discrimination in educational programs that received federal funding, was initiated in 1972. This law paved the way for women to participate in collegiate athletic programs and flung the doors wide open for women to compete at the professional level. Since 1972, the growth of women’s sports has been exponential and female athletes are now household names. We have watched women like Venus and Serena Williams excel in tennis, Danica Patrick in auto racing, Mia Hamm and Hope Solo in soccer, Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor in volleyball, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles in gymnastics. And the list goes on. While the gender gap may be closing in the opportunity to compete, the gender-gap in sports injuries still remains.

Women Are More Susceptible to Injury

This is not a sexist statement, this is a biological fact. While sports injuries occur often in men, female athletes are more likely to sustain injuries such as ankle sprains, shoulder problems, stress fractures—particularly in the foot or tibia (lower leg), and plantar fasciitis which is a small tear in the tissue of the foot along the heel or the arch. Surprisingly, the most common injury that affects more women than men is a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). Female athletes are actually 10 times more likely to tear their ACL than their male counterpart. This has little to do with skill or training, but with anatomy. Women are built differently than men which makes them more susceptible to injury.

Linking Anatomy and ACL Tears

There are many factors that may lead to an injury, particularly in the knee. Overall, women have higher estrogen levels, less muscle mass and muscle strength, greater flexibility, and looser ligaments. Women also have a wider pelvis which can change the alignment of their knees and ankles. This allows the knees to move inward and puts added stress on the ACL. On top of that, the space for the ACL (intercondylar notch) within the knee is more narrow which limits the ability of the ACL to move. There is also a greater chance that women do not have an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D. And even though doctors don’t have a full understanding behind the role of hormones in injuries, they have found that prior to ovulation, during the first part of the menstruation cycle, women are more likely to experience an injury.

Men and Women Move Differently

The anatomy of the female body increases the chance of injury, but so does biomechanics. Because men and women are built differently, they tend to move differently as well. Female athletes are more likely to hyperextend their knee adding stress to surrounding ligaments, tendons, and muscles simply because her joints are more flexible. When landing a jump, women typically land upright, with their knees closer together. And when a female athlete changes direction quickly or cut, they tend to do so on one foot rather than cut from both feet. The extra force puts extreme tension on the knee instead of being absorbed by supporting muscle, usually because the muscles in a woman’s legs, buttocks, and hip are not as strong.

Preventing Injuries

Even though the anatomy and biomechanics may increase risk, it is possible to prevent injuries and avoid the pain of a torn ACL as well as the long recovery process. If you are a female athlete, make sure you drink water before, during, and after training, fully recover between workouts and don’t overuse your knees and ankles. Focus on training properly, learning correct techniques for changing directions and landing jumps. Strengthen supporting muscles like the hamstring (muscle behind the thigh) and the vastus medialis (muscle along inside of the thigh and knee) to avoid extra strain on your knees. Stretch at the end of a game, practice, or workout so that your muscles stay limber, and if you do get injured, make sure you fully heal before engaging in your sport.

If you have questions about your risk for injury or have recently suffered from a sports-related injury, schedule an appointment at Capital Ortho today. Our team of sports medicine specialists is determined to help you reach complete healing and prevent future injuries.