Over the last half-century, there’s been a huge increase in the number of women playing sports at various levels. From the rec leagues to the pro leagues, countless women are achieving success on the field.
Unfortunately, having a greater number of female athletes in play has revealed an unexpected challenge: Women have a higher risk of sports injuries. Specifically, female athletes are more likely to experience knee injuries.
As orthopedic physicians who specialize in women’s unique sports medicine needs, the team at The Woodlands Sports Medicine Centre in The Woodlands, Texas, provides skilled support and expert advice for female patients with athletic interests.
Find out what makes athletic women more prone to knee injuries than their male counterparts, and learn what kind of preventive measures you can take to protect these critical joints.
A virtual knee injury epidemic
Female athletes aren’t more susceptible to just any type of knee injury — they’re more likely to injure their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
Your ACL is a flexible band of connective tissue that runs diagonally through the middle of your knee joint. In addition to connecting your thigh bone (femur) to your shin bone (tibia), your ACL helps stabilize your joint, especially during rotational movement.
An ACL that’s overstretched may sprain or tear, causing persistent knee pain and occasional joint instability. An ACL that tears completely, on the other hand, is essentially nonfunctional and can’t support any weight.
All athletes — especially those who take part in high-intensity activities — have an inherent risk of ACL injury, but female athletes are 2-8 times more likely to suffer a non-contact ACL injury compared to men who play the same sports.
Female risk factors for ACL injuries
There’s no single, definitive explanation for why women are more prone to ACL injuries than men, but orthopedic physicians and sports medicine experts believe the risk difference is due to a combination of:
Compared to men, women have smaller intercondylar notches, the small grooves at the end of each thigh bone that form part of both knee joints.
This notch and the section of ACL that passes through it are up to 20% narrower in women than in men; a narrower ACL is more susceptible to tearing.
Women also tend to have more elastic ligaments than men, largely because of reproductive hormonal differences. An ACL that’s inherently more flexible is more likely to overstretch or twist during intense rotational movements.
The female pelvis is also typically wider than the male pelvis. Given that a wider pelvis creates a sharper downward angle between the thigh and the knee, women’s knees tend to bend toward the midline of their body, placing added stress on the ACL.
Female athletes have a wide range of athletic skills and technical abilities, but research shows they tend to have certain biomechanical factors markedly different from their male counterparts.
For example, women are more likely than men to land a jump on the soles, rather than the balls, of their feet. A flat-footed landing style means a woman’s knees absorb most of the shock.
Women are more likely to run in a fully upright position, giving them less control over how their knee joints rotate. This is especially true — and potentially injurious — with sudden pivots.
Female athletes also tend to have a quad-hamstring imbalance, meaning their anterior thigh muscles (quadriceps) are often stronger than their posterior thigh muscles (hamstrings). Knee joints compensate for weak hamstrings by placing additional stress on the ACL.
ACL injury prevention and care
Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to prevent sports-related knee injuries, and the team at The Woodlands Sports Medicine Centre is ready to help. We take a comprehensive approach to injury prevention that aims to help female athletes:
- Build stronger, more balanced leg muscles
- Achieve a stronger, more stable core
- Learn proper running, jumping, and landing techniques
- Make progress in balance and speed training
- Find footwear that matches their biomechanics and sport
Taking steps to prevent an ACL injury can go a long way in protecting your knees when you’re in the game, but injuries can still happen. If you suffer a knee injury, prompt, expert care is key.
Whereas a minor knee injury may call for little more than inflammation control and physical therapy, a severe injury may require surgical ACL repair. A swift and accurate diagnosis is the only path toward proper care and healing so you can eventually return to the game.
If you’d like to learn more about sports injury prevention, the team at The Woodlands Sports Medicine Centre can help. Call 281-410-2882 today, or use the easy online tool anytime to schedule a visit with one of our experienced sports medicine specialists.