Prior to 1972, there were very few women who competed on sports teams at collegiate and university levels. Why? Well, in 1972 Title IX was passed; a law that increased federal funding of sports programs and activities for girls and women.
So, from 1972 until today, the number of girls who play high school sports increased from a mere 300,000 to over 3 million! While this has been an amazing step towards equality, this has also led to a substantial increase in female sports injuries. Although women and men have very similar overall injury rates, there are differences in the specific injuries and mechanisms.
Men and Women Sports Injury Differences
The obvious differences between sexes begin at birth; however, once kids hit puberty, the musculoskeletal differences become more apparent. Women have a wider pelvis. This increases the angle of the quadriceps (Q angle) at the knee. Women on average also have less muscle mass and strength than men and increased ligament laxity. In general, women can decrease their injury rates by working on conditioning and strengthening. There are a few specific areas where women are more susceptible to injury than men.
Women are more prone to certain shoulder injuries. Due to increased laxity and less strength in the shoulder, girls and young women can have more problems with shoulder instability. Women in their 40s-50s are more likely to suffer frozen shoulder than men. The best way for women to maintain healthy shoulders is to work on rotator cuff strength, scapular strength and good posture. It is also important for middle-aged women to maintain their shoulder motion.
Women also suffer more knee and foot issues than men due to differences in anatomy, like an increased Q angle and increased ligamentous laxity. Women’s feet also may pronate more which puts increased stress on the knee. In addition, females often have increased internal rotation of the hips relative to the knees. This can lead to patellofemoral syndrome or anterior knee pain. The muscles tend to pull the kneecap to the outside and put more stress on the outer part of the kneecap which can cause pain. Some girls and women can also have kneecap instability, where the kneecap moves completely out of the groove it normally sits in on the femur or thigh bone. Exercises or physical therapy to increase quadriceps and hip strength as well as stretching of the IT band can help with these problems. Additional easy fixes include short-term treatment with an anti-inflammatory, patellar braces and foot orthotics.
Active men and women both face the gruesome pain of ACL injuries. However, women are 2-6 times more likely to suffer an ACL injury. This is multifactorial. Again the anatomy of women’s lower extremities and increased ligamentous laxity are believed to increase the risk. In addition, girls and women tend to land in a more upright position than men and have greater strength in their quadriceps compared to hamstrings, both of which increase strain on the ACL. ACL injury prevention programs increase strength and work on improved cutting/pivoting/landing mechanics. These programs are proven to be effective in decreasing ACL injuries in women.
Although women are at higher risk for certain injuries due to genetics and hormones, many of these injuries can be prevented with strengthening and conditioning programs. There are numerous benefits to girls and women participating in sports and exercising. As we encourage more women and girls to be active we should focus on proper strengthening, jump landing and conditioning programs to prevent injuries.