Many Americans are familiar with common injuries sustained by male athletes because of the heavy year-round media coverage of men’s sports. But as the tournament season for women’s basketball gets under way, many people may be interested to learn that potential injury risks for female athletes differ from their male counterparts.
“Women are more likely to have a different set of injuries playing basketball due to inherent differences in anatomy or muscle control and responses,” said Dr. Kim Templeton, an orthopedic surgeon at The University of Kansas Hospital and professor of orthopedic surgery in the University School of Medicine. “Women can help reduce their potential for an injury by understanding these differences and attempting to modify those factors that can be addressed, such as relative weakness of some muscles or avoiding positions that place them at higher risk for injury.”
Dr. Templeton, who is senior editor and co-author of the recently released medical textbook “Women’s Sports Injuries,” lists the following injuries as most common for female athletes:
1. ACL Tears: The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a tight band of tissue that binds together the bones in the knee to keep the joint stable. While men typically tear this ligament as a result of direct contact, women are more likely to tear it due to the positions in which they land. This injury is common among female soccer and basketball players, the latter primarily due to the way they inherently land from a jump. When landing with their hips and knees straight, this forces the knee to straighten beyond its natural range, causing the ACL to pull apart.
One way to help prevent this injury is to build up strong hamstrings, which will take pressure off the ACL. Another strategy is to learn different landing techniques, especially those where the hips and knees are bent.
2. “Runners Knee” or Anterior Knee Pain Syndrome: This is caused by irritation of the cartilage on the undersurface of the kneecap and is more common in women due to the alignment of the pelvis and legs, and also due to inherent, relative differences in muscle strength. To avoid runner’s knee, use proper running shoes with adequate support. In addition, focus on strengthening the quadriceps, the muscles in front of the thigh that straighten the knee and control the knee cap. For women, it is also important to strengthen the muscles that turn the hip out, as this will help with the positioning of the knee cap during activities.
3. Stress Fractures: These are small cracks in a bone, often developed from overuse and/or low bone mass. Stress fractures occur when bone is not allowed the time necessary to recuperate from the impact of sports activities, especially if athletes rapidly increase their training or change running surfaces. They are also more common in women with low bone mass, as it does not respond and strengthen as quickly in response to increasing activity levels, as normal bone. Stress fractures can likely be prevented by gradually increasing activity, building strong, sturdy calves that absorb the shock around bones, wearing well-cushioned sports shoe that are in good condition and developing healthy bone habits (e.g., taking in enough calories to support the athlete’s level of activity, adequate calcium and vitamin D intake).
4. Sprained Ankle: Ankle sprains occur more commonly in female than male basketball players. The sprains can be caused by simply rolling the ankle, whether by landing wrong on an uneven surface or due to increased friction between shoes and the playing surface. Differences between men and women in terms of this injury are most likely due to differences in how the pelvis and legs are aligned, as well as differences in how loose ligaments are. Strengthening and balancing exercises can help avoid a sprained ankle. These exercises are especially important for athletes who have had a prior ankle sprain, as this places them at higher risk of another ankle injury.
5. Meniscus Tears: The meniscus is a rubbery, c-shaped disc that cushions the knee. The two menisci in each knee help keep the knee steady by balancing weight across the knee. Leg stretching and strengthening helps prevent meniscus tears.
If an injury does occur, Dr. Templeton recommends discussing this with a health care professional. For minor leg injuries, the commonly used RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) protocol may be all that is needed. Continued pain after a few days suggests a follow-up with a doctor. More significant injuries will need additional evaluation and treatment.
Rest. Take a break from the activity that caused the injury. Your doctor may recommend that you use crutches to avoid putting weight on your leg.
Ice. Use cold packs for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. Do not apply ice directly to the skin.
Compression. To prevent additional swelling, wear an elastic compression bandage (not too tight, more compression isn’t necessarily better).
Elevation. To reduce swelling, recline when you rest and put your leg up higher than your heart.
-- Story from KU Hospital