Common sports injuries faced by women

Disclaimer: This article first appeared in Shape Magazine as an Interview with Gleneagles

1. What are some of the most common sports injuries faced by women?

Women are increasing involved sports locally and the incidence of sports injury has increased as a result. Common injuries include those affecting the shoulders, elbows, wrists, back, hips, knees, foot and ankle. Different sports places increase stresses in different anatomical parts of the body and thus result in varying injuries. Sports injuries are broadly divided into 2 main groups

  • Traumatic injuries (sprains, muscle pulls, fractures, dislocations etc)
  • Overuse injuries (strains, tendonitis, tendinosis low back pain, etc)

Even in running, looking at the scientific literature, we can see that women indeed do, on the whole, get injured more often than men do.  But the difference is not quite as drastic as popular wisdom might hold—a 2002 study of around two thousand patients at a Vancouver, Canada sports injury clinic found that women represented 54% of injuries, with men taking up the other 46%.  But among some specific injuries, women are at significantly higher risk such as Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Tears.

2. What musculoskeletal and biological makeup differences between both genders contributes to sports performance and injuries?

There are many factors that attribute to the differences in injuries between the genders. The main reasons include

a. Anatomical Factors

Taking ACL injuries as an example: these factors include pelvis width, Q-angle (the angle between a line connecting a point on the front of the hip bone and the center of the kneecap and another connecting the kneecap and a point on the upper shin-bone), size of the ACL, and size of the intercondylar notch (where the ACL crosses the knee joint). Larger pelvis width, Q angle, smaller ACLs and a smaller intercondylar notch places females at a higher risk.

*  – Q angle is the angle formed by a line drawn from the ASIS to central patella and a second line drawn from central patella to tibial tubercle;
    – an increased Q angle is a risk factor for patellar subluxation;
    – normally Q angle is 14 deg for males and 17 deg for females;
           – Agliettis et. al. Clin. Ortho 1983:
           – 75 normal males:    Q angle = 14 deg (+/- 3)
           – 75 normal females: Q angle = 17 deg (+/- 3)
    – biomechanics of patellofemoral joint are effected by patellar tendon length & the Q angle;

b. Biomechanical/ Neuromuscular factors

Women have been found to have differences in biomechanic movements of the knee seen when pivoting, jumping, and landing — activities that often lead to an ACL injury. There is also a relatively greater imbalance between quadriceps and hamstring muscles (with the quads being stronger in females), which can contribute to knee injuries.

c. Training/ Conditioning factors (doll games vs ball games)

Until recent years, males are involved training actively for competitive sports at an early age compared to females. As such they are physically better conditioned to withstand sports injuries. Hence, boys being involved in ball games as compared to girls being involved in doll games at an earlier age. Nevertheless, the combination of the greater susceptibility and a 10-fold increase in the female sports population since the inception of Title IX in the United States has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of ACL injuries in females. Locally, increased emphasis in sports and fitness has also allowed us to witness a large increased in the number of females involved in recreational and competitive sports and consequently an increase in the number of injured females.

d. Hormonal factors

Female sex hormones (i.e. oestrogen, progesterone and relaxin) fluctuate radically during the menstrual cycle and are reported to increase ligamentous laxity and decrease neuromuscular performance and, thus, are a possible cause of decreases in both passive and active knee stability in female athletes.

3. Are there certain sports that put women more at risk of injuries than men?

In view of the factors that lead to an increased risk of certain sports injuries, high demand sports involving planting and cutting, jumping with a poor landing, stopping suddenly or changing directions quickly (Soccer, Volleyball, Skiing, Lacrosse, Football, netball etc) can put women at a higher risk of knee sports injuries compared to men. Extrapolating this to other injuries including the shoulder/elbow/hip/ foot and ankle, women may also be at a higher risk of sustaining certain injuries compared to their male counterpart. For shoulder injuries, the combination of not having strong shoulder muscles, including the rotator cuff and periscapular muscles, and having generally supporting tissues that are more lax can lead to instability in the shoulder.

4. What are some sports that put women at an advantage compared to men? How so?

There are some sports where flexibility may play a greater role such as gymnastics where women are at an advantage. Interestingly, women are at a lower risk of hamstring injuries compared to men in a National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Injury Surveillance System (ISS) regarding all hamstring strain and rupture injuries in male and female soccer players between 2004 and 2009. Men were significantly more likely to suffer a hamstring injury during the in-season than women. Men are also more likely to suffer recurrent hamstring injuries.

5. As a member of the medical panel for the upcoming BNP Paribas WTA Final Singapore presented by SC Global, do you foresee any common sports injuries that the professional women tennis players will likely encounter? Perhaps our humid weather and brand new court grounds may play a role in altering their performance?

Tennis injuries are also of 2 broad types:

  • Traumatic injuries (sprains, muscle pulls, fractures, etc) make up about 1/3 of injuries seen in tennis, depending on the age and activity level of the player. Most traumatic injuries occur in the lower extremity. They are not easily prevented, nor are they particularly related to tennis technique.
  • Overuse injuries (strains, tendonitis, tendinosis low back pain, etc) comprise about 2/3 of injuries experienced by tennis players. Overuse injuries occur in all areas of the body, and may be related to technique or to alterations in the athlete’s musculoskeletal system.

Common injuries include tennis elbow, shoulder injuries such as rotator cuff tears, stress fractures, muscle strains, knee ligament strains/ tears, ankle sprains/ ligament tears and also back injuries.

Specific to ACL injuries, tennis players with an ACL deficient knee showed a clear incapacity to play on hard courts, where demanding eccentric deceleration motions occur. Frontal and rotational knee moments are thought to be increased when playing on hard surfaces owing to greater friction between the foot and the ground. Clay courts seem to be a better option for ACL deficient players.

6. What are some common injuries faced by recreational female tennis players?

Similarly, tennis injuries will include both traumatic and overuse ones. However, we do see a larger number of overuse injuries in recreational players. One of the reasons can be because of less consistent technique and form.

7. How can those tennis-related injuries be treated, and avoided?

There are multiple causes for the overuse injuries in tennis, including the need to perform repetitive forceful motions and strokes, inadequate rest and recovery, incorrect tennis specific conditioning, acquired inflexibility, and strength weakness/imbalance. Each injury may have unique causes that must be evaluated to avoid repeated injury, suggest proper conditioning programs, and allow safe return to sport. Because many parts of the tennis player’s body experience high loads on a repetitive basis, the musculoskeletal system must be prepared to withstand these loads. Much research has shown that an athlete cannot just play a sport to get in maximum shape for that sport, so a tennis player’s training plan should include a structured conditioning program that includes more than just playing tennis. Conditioning for tennis requires the exercises to be specific for the demands of tennis, and to be performed in a periodized manner in order to balance the workout load between conditioning and practice/play. As such, the roles of off the court strength training, conditioning, pre-game warming up and post-game stretching are very important.

When injuries occur, depending on the type and severity of injury, a consultation with your doctor will be advised. After a thorough medical examination and appropriate investigations, your doctor can then advise an appropriate management plan which will often include rest, cold compression, pain killers, anti-inflammatory medications, physiotherapy and rehabilitation. Surgery will be considered in cases where non operative management is not suitable.

8. How can a women’s menstrual cycle affect her sports performance? Is there a best and worst time for sports, according to the menstrual cycle?

There are some studies that show there were more injuries than expected in the ovulatory phase of the cycle. In contrast, significantly fewer injuries occurred in the follicular phase. This is postulated to be due to oestrogen and relaxin’s direct effect on collagen metabolism and behaviour.

Oestrogen levels reach their peak during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle just before ovulation and remain elevated until just before menstruation.

The effect of oestrogen on bone and ligaments include:

  • Inhibition of bone cells that breakdown bone (osteoclasts)
  • Inhibition of the development of new cells that breakdown bone
  • Promotes the survival of cells that build bone (osteoblasts)
  • Promotes the production of collagen in connective tissue including ligaments

Relaxin is produced during pregnancy; and in non-pregnant females during the luteal phase (2nd half) of the cycle. It peaks within 14 days of ovulation.

Effects of relaxin include:

  • Inhibition of collagen production
  • Promotes collagen breakdown

Taking into account the effect of these hormones, you might expect that women would be more vulnerable to injury pre-menstrually or at the beginning of the period when the ligaments would appear to be at their loosest. However, studies have shown inconclusive results. There are some studies that show there were more injuries than expected in the ovulatory phase of the cycle. In contrast, significantly fewer injuries occurred in the follicular phase. However, some have shown a greater than expected percentage of injury mid cycle where you would expect the tissues to be at their stiffest and thickest.