There are some obvious differences between men and women and some of these differences can lead to an increased risk of injury. Here we explain our top five most common sports injuries for women and why they affect women more than men. We also look at what you can do to try to prevent them.
Anterior cruciate ligament injury
An ACL sprain is a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in the middle of the knee joint and is the clear winner in terms of female injuries compared to male. The main reason for this is, unfortunately, an anatomical one where women have wider hips which means the biomechanics of the knee is different. In particular, the angle between the thigh bone (femur) and the shin bone (tibia), which is known as the Q angle (quadriceps femoris angle) is increased. The average Q angle in women is up to 5 degrees higher than in men which can lead to poor knee control and an increased risk of valgus, or sideways forces on the knee, especially when landing from a jump or turning.
You can help to prevent ACL sprains by improving the proprioception (co-ordination) of the leg by doing exercises such as the single leg balance. Simply stand on one leg and time how long you can balance. Close your eyes to make it more difficult or use a wobble balance board or cushion. This should be done both in standing and after landing from a jump. The other most effective way to prevent ACL injuries in females is to improve the strength of the quadriceps muscles, especially the one on the inside, called the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO), and ensure that the hamstring and quadriceps muscles are well balanced (equal) in terms of strength.
Anterior Knee Pain
This is pain that is experienced around the front of the knee and is often felt around or under the kneecap. It is common in sporty or active girls and is usually due to changes in biomechanics in the legs combined with reduced quadriceps strength, again linked to an increased Q-angle. Another reported cause of anterior knee pain is reduced strength of the gluteal (buttock) muscles because one of their main functions is to turn the hip and knee outwards and therefore weakness can lead to both the knee and foot turning in and increasing the Q-angle even further.
We advise improving the strength of both the gluteal and quadriceps muscles to try and avoid this common sport injury. See our 4-minute challenge to improving your glute muscles.
Stress fractures in the lower leg
Stress fractures are fine hairline cracks or fractures in the bone and are common in the foot and lower leg. They are caused by overuse, resulting in abnormal and repetitive loads or stresses. Stress fractures are more common in female athletes, especially those who suffer from 'the female triad' and often occur in the shin bone (tibia stress fracture) and the bones of the foot (metatarsal stress fracture). The female triad is a condition that is characterised by a combination of poor nutrition, lack of a menstrual period during reproduction age and a reduction in bone density.
Eating a healthy and well-balanced diet that is appropriate for the number of calories burned per day is one solution, however, assistance from your GP is definitely advised to appropriately address the other symptoms and causes and ensure you are provided with the necessary advice and treatment.
Ankle sprains are tears to the ligaments, usually on the outside of the ankle. They are very common in both men and women, but especially in women. Possible reasons for this may be poor 'core' control from a weakness of the muscles in the abdomen and hip, as well as the leg muscles causing an increased risk of injury especially when running or changing direction. If the quadriceps are stronger than the hamstring muscles and vice-versa, or there are imbalances between the muscles that support the inside and outside of the ankle, then the ankle might be at risk of injury.
Our advice is to improve overall lower leg strength and proprioception (balance and coordination). Exercises to improve proprioception such as single leg balance drills have been proved to be very effective in reducing the chances of sustaining an ankle sprain. Try seeing how long you can stand on one leg with your eyes closed and aim to increase the time each day!
Plantar fasciitis is probably the most common cause of heel pain and is due to inflammation or injury to the tissues in the sole of the foot from repetitive stretching or overload to the plantar fascia in the sole of the foot. In women, it is often due to regularly changing footwear, such as from high heeled shoes to flat shoes. The plantar fascia supports the long arch on the inside of the foot and regularly changing shoes affects how much support the tissues can provide, therefore causing excessive strain stress on the foot.
Our main but simple piece of advice is to avoid changing from very flat or high heeled shoes, especially if you spend a significant time on your feet during the day. Trainers are the ideal type of shoe as they provide cushioning in the foot whilst also supporting the arches. It is very important to wear shoes that have an arch in them that can effectively take the stress away from the plantar fascia. If you already have plantar fasciitis there is a lot you can do to cure it including stretching, taping, night splints, orthotic shoe insoles and more.