Last summer marked the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which was enacted in 1972 to guarantee equal access for girls and women in schools that receive federal funding — including the same athletic opportunities as their male counterparts.
Since its passing, girls’ participation in high school sports is now 12 times higher than when Title IX passed. Moreover, studies show that women who participate in sporting activities at school have a 76% chance of maintaining interest in sports for the rest of their lives.
Playing sports offers numerous benefits to women of all ages, including:
- School-aged girls who play sports have better academic performance.
- In adult women, regular exercise can promote brain health and improve cognitive functions, such as planning and decision-making.
- As women age, regular exercise is shown to improve mobility and help prevent falls.
- Women tend to benefit from the social aspect and community-building associated with exercise and sports participation.
Along with these benefits, however, comes the risk of injury. While sports injuries affect both men and women, some tend to be more common among females.
Tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee are one of the most prevalent injuries among women athletes. In fact, female soccer and basketball athletes are two to seven times more likely than males to experience an ACL tear.
“There are slight anatomical differences between men and women in terms of muscle mechanics, strength and anatomy, including differences in landing dynamics,” explains Laika Nur, MD, a sports medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines, Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley.
“Girls and women tend to land with the knee extended straight rather than flexed, which in some cases can lead to greater force and stress that puts the ACL in a vulnerable position,” Dr. Nur says.
Sudden twisting, cutting or pivoting movements, like those needed in soccer or basketball, can also raise the risk of ACL tears. Depending on the severity of the injury, treatment for ACL tears may involve rest, physical therapy and surgery.
Twisting, cutting and pivoting movements can also lead to sprained ankles, which happen when the ligaments surrounding the ankle stretch or tear.
Treatment usually involves rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE), often followed by physical therapy to restore strength and mobility. An ankle brace may help keep the ankle stable during recovery, as well as help prevent future injury.
Female athletes also are more likely than males to experience overuse injuries, such as inflammation of a tendon (tendonitis). Overuse injuries generally result from excessive or repetitive use of a joint such as the shoulder, elbow or knee; on average, women are three times more likely to have shoulder injuries and twice as likely to have knee tendonitis.
Tendonitis symptoms typically include pain and tenderness in the affected area during play, at rest, or both. Rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy exercises all can help with tendonitis, as can wearing a supportive brace. Overuse injuries rarely require surgery, but injections or cortisone or platelet-rich plasma may help promote healing.
Stress fractures, another type of overuse injury, are caused by repetitive force on a bone from running or jumping. These tiny but painful bone cracks frequently develop in the shin (tibia) and foot.
Treatment includes resting and keeping weight off the affected bone until the fracture heals; more severe stress fractures may need to be immobilized with a brace or cast.
Women can help lower the risk of ACL tears by doing exercises to strengthen and stabilize the muscles around the knee, as well as learning movement techniques to help prevent injury. The ACL Prevention Program created by FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, guides athletes through a very specific series of stretches, strengthening and agility exercises designed to protect the ACL.
Athletes can help prevent overuse injuries by limiting training time and varying activities that create balance in the muscles. For example, if you really enjoy pickleball and you have time to exercise five days a week, it may be tempting to play pickleball all five times. However, consider using a day to work on Pilates-based exercises to promote pelvic and core strength. This may help limit the potential for overuse injury in pickleball.
Varying activities is especially important for school-age girls. Young athletes who participate in the same organized sport for greater than eight consecutive months are at higher risk for overuse injury — regardless of how many hours per week they spend training.
“I encourage everyone to find a few different activities they enjoy,” says Dr. Nur. “Second, take lessons from a qualified instructor so you develop proper form and technique. And finally, listen to your body and see your doctor if something doesn’t feel right. Never try to just ‘play through’ the pain.”