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Why are girl athletes getting hurt?

Bookmark and Share It's hard to believe that more than two decades have passed since the enactment of Title IX, a law prohibiting sex discrimination in school athletics. Since then, girls have been closing the gap with boys and celebrating their achievements in competitive sports.

Just as girls are enjoying increased opportunities - like athletic scholarships - they are also suffering a staggering rate of injuries. In sports that both girls and boys play, girls are much likelier than their male counterparts to sustain serious knee injuries.

Consider Erin Bigley, a former Moorestown High School lacrosse and soccer stand-out, who contributed to that statistic … twice.

In high school, Bigley tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which is one of the four major ligaments of the knee. A painful injury, the ACL is torn during a sudden torsion, hyperextension, or dislocation of the joint. After reconstructive surgery, and months of physical therapy, Bigley was ready to play again.

"I wanted to get back on the field so badly," she explains. "I couldn't see myself sitting on the sidelines." Soon after she returned to play, she found herself out of the game, this time, with a tear in her other knee.

Why girls?
Although the exact reasons for the differences in injury rates between the sexes aren't confirmed, orthopaedic experts identify unique physiological characteristics among girls that cause more stress on the knee. "Hip width is one issue for girls, causing the thighbone to slant at an angle toward the knee and rotate the joint inward," explains Virtua orthopaedic surgeon Robert Falconiero, DO.

Dr. Falconiero, who performed both of Bigley's surgeries, also suggests theories such as differences in hormones and muscle strength. Various prevention techniques are recommended, but they're not always enough. As a result, Dr. Falconiero sees female athletes of all ages, most commonly with acute trauma injuries like torn ACLs or other knee injuries like torn menisci.

Strength and balance for protection
Dr. Falconiero says one of the best chances for prevention is to stay strong. "Supervised strength training sessions can build the muscles that support the joints," he says, adding that balanced strength between different muscle groups is also important. "Muscle imbalance will put a strain on your joints."

Balanced strength comes from more than quads and hamstrings according to Dr. Falconiero: "The importance of trunk or core strength surprises some people. Control in the entire abdominal region helps with power and balance to help the extremities work better."

Virtua physical therapist Jennifer Sewell says that strength and conditioning also helps female athletes to move properly. "Girls tend not to engage some of their muscles as fully as boys in athletic maneuvers like jumping," she says. Athletes can be trained through repetition to use their muscles more effectively for secure landings or turns."

Listening to your body
The most basic advice Dr. Falconiero offers is to ensure adequate rest, but this is often overlooked in today's competitive environment. "The pressure to excel drives athletes to over-train and ignore symptoms. Athletes need to listen to their bodies, and their bodies need rest." Bigley is listening. Talented enough to play Division I college lacrosse as a freshman, her most recent injury led her to choose a less intense club program for her second year. "Ultimately, as hard as it was to give up, I decided my long-term health was more important."