The best way to stay healthy and mobile is to prevent sports-related injuries. No matter what type of workouts you do or sports you play, there’s a risk of injury. When you’re injured, it takes time away from playing sports and exercising. Plus, it’s a mental downer, not being able to move your body without discomfort. What you might not realize is some types of injuries are more common in females than in males. Once you know where your potential weaknesses lie, you can take steps to lower your risk. Let’s look at the most common types of injuries that female athletes sustain and why.
Stress fractures are small cracks in a bone, often due to overuse. These tiny cracks develop when the bone sustains repetitive trauma and doesn’t have enough time to repair. These breaks are most common in the lower leg, heels, and feet, especially in long-distance runners. Women have a higher risk of stress fractures relative to men, especially after menopause as bone density declines.
Another group of women at high risk are those who do frequent high-impact exercise and restrict calories. An example is women with female athlete triad due to over-training and calorie restriction. Women with female athlete triad often have a sharp drop in estrogen and this creates bone weaknesses that contribute to stress fractures.
How can you lower your risk of stress fractures? If you run, don’t increase your mileage by more than 10% per week. Upping your mileage too fast increases the risk of stress fractures and tendon injury. Also, don’t overdo high-impact exercise since the force of hitting the ground stresses the bones. Wear supportive shoes that absorb impact when your feet strike the ground and consume enough calories to avoid the female athlete triad syndrome.
Women are at higher risk of tearing an anterior cruciate ligament (AC) relative to men. In fact, female athletes have 4 to 10 times higher risk of developing an ACL tear relative to male athletes. A torn ACL is one of the more common injuries that women athletes sustain and it can be a career-ender.
Why are these tears so common? One reason women have a greater risk of this serious injury has to do with anatomy. The anterior cruciate ligament extends through a compartment between the thigh bones. In women, this compartment is tighter, placing more stress on the ACL. Women also have a wider pelvis and that creates a greater angle, called the Q angle, between the femur and tibia, increasing the susceptibility to injury.
One way to lower your risk of an ACL tear is to strengthen your hamstrings. Many women have a muscle strength imbalance between their quads and hamstrings – their quads are stronger than their hamstrings. So, focus on strengthening your hamstring muscles, so you have balanced strength in your legs. If you play sports that require pivoting, bend at your knees so you’re closer to the ground to take the stress off your ACL. When you jump, don’t land stiff-legged. Land softly and with some bend in your knees.
Women are at a slightly higher risk of developing plantar fasciitis relative to men, and it’s more common in women who are active. The most common age for this sometimes painful condition to occur is between the ages of 40 and 70. With plantar fasciitis, the tough tissue called fascia that absorbs shock when your heel strikes the ground becomes inflamed. In reality, scientists now believe plantar fasciitis is more of a degenerative condition than an inflammatory one. Nevertheless, plantar fasciitis causes heel pain, usually worse in the morning when you first wake up and right after exercise.
How can you lower your risk of plantar fasciitis? Watch your weight. Carrying excess weight increases the risk of this foot condition because it places more pressure on the fascia. Always wear supportive shoes that fit your feet. If you have flat feet, wearing a shoe that contains an orthotic or arch support that elevates your heel may lower your risk. Orthotics work by reducing stress and impact on the heel when your foot strikes. If you have plantar fasciitis, wearing a night splint may help too, along with stretching exercises. The formula many podiatrists give for people with active plantar fasciitis is to rest, stretch, and ice the heels.
Watch your ankles! A study found that the most frequent sports-related injuries among male and female athletes involve the ankles. Women are also at greater risk of ankle sprains. Research shows that women have more laxity in their lateral ankle ligaments than do men. When ligaments are laxer, it increases the risk of ankle sprains. Playing sports and exercising isn’t the only way you can sprain an ankle. You raise your risk of ankle sprains when you wear high-heeled shoes too.
How can you lower your risk of spraining an ankle? Strengthen the muscles that support your ankle. One way to do that is to lie on a mat and attempt to draw all the letters in the alphabet with your toes. Also, include balance exercises in your routine. When you have better balance, it lowers your risk of ankle injuries by improving proprioception.
The Bottom Line
Now you know what the most common injuries are that women are more susceptible to than men. Keep your training balanced, don’t over-train, don’t train through pain, wear the right shoes, and don’t advance your training too fast. If you sustain frequent injuries, get evaluated by a sports medicine physician. They can check for anatomical issues, such as a leg length discrepancy, that increases your risk.
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