While young girls can easily “keep up” with the boys when it comes to sports, around puberty the physical differences between a young female athlete and a young male athlete really start to show. Higher levels of testosterone allow boys to add muscle and get stronger quickly. But in turn, they become less flexible. Girls, as their estrogen levels increase, tend to naturally add more fat than muscle and have to train harder to get stronger. However, estrogen helps makes girls’ ligaments lax, meaning they typically outperform boys when it comes to overall body flexibility. And while flexibility is a huge advantage in some sports, especially gymnastics, it also represents greater risk for injury when female athletes don’t have sufficient muscle strength to keep their joints in stable, safe positions.
So are female athletes really getting more hurt frequently than male athletes? The numbers certainly make it seem so!
Obviously full contact sports like football and hockey top the list for more concussed players, but when comparing male and female athletes in the same sport women seem to be getting concussed a lot more frequently. According to an infographic put out by the online Master of Science in Nursing program at the Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, female basketball players are 240% MORE likely than their male counterparts to suffer from a concussion. And in high school soccer female players are 40% more likely than men to be concussed. Some speculate that these numbers come from the fact that female athletes are more likely to report their symptoms than their male counterparts. Others say that since Title IX went into affect female athletes have just been getting more and more competitive, meaning more injuries.
There are between 100,000 and 200,000 ACL ruptures per year in the United States. Most torn ACLs are actually caused when an athlete is running or jumping and suddenly slows down and changes direction, and less frequently when two athletes crash into each other. Interestingly, ACL injuries happen 4-6 times MORE among female athletes, compared to male athletes playing the same sport. There are multiple theories around as to why women are more likely to tear their ACL, including differences in the amount of hormones, an imbalance in the strength ratio between quadricep muscle and hamstring muscle, and even improper body mechanics.
Girls tend to run differently than boys, which may put them at greater risk when changing directions and landing from jumps, leading to more torn ACLs. Because of their wider hips brought on by puberty, they are more likely to be knock-kneed, another suspected risk factor.
Women are also prone to shoulder injuries. “Men are stronger up top than women,” says Dr. Bridget Quinn, a primary care sports medicine physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who specializes in female athletes. “The combination of not having strong shoulder muscles, including the rotator cuff and periscapular muscles, and having loose supporting tissues can lead to instability in the shoulder.” As a result, women playing sports that are heavy on the shoulder including swimming, softball or volleyball typically are at risk for rotator cuff weakness, tightness, and pain.
The University of Alberta – Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation put out a report a few years ago that speculated that “many training programs developed for female athletes are built on research using young adult males and don’t take the intrinsic biological differences between the sexes into account.” Could it be that female athletes are getting hurt because we as coaches and trainers are doing something wrong? Or do the physical differences between men and women not really matter that much when it comes to preventing injuries?