Understanding how gender affects injury in sports is an important step toward sports injury prevention and recovery. It may seem like sports-related injuries are based on personal training, skill level or chance, but gender does affect sports injuries. Although injury may seem more common for male athletes according to what we see in the news, the greater popularity and visibility of men's professional sports may be skewing our perception.
So do men get injured more than women, or do women get injured more than men? This article will answer that question by looking at which gender is more prone to injuries and why, what types of injuries females and males suffer from and how both genders can prevent common sports-related injuries.
Which Gender Is More Prone to Injuries?
Females are more at risk of suffering from the most common sports-related injuries, such as ankle sprains, shin splints and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, compared to males. Although there has been a rise in ACL tears among young athletes overall, girls between the ages of 13 and 17 have seen the largest uptick at a 59% increase in required reconstruction procedures over recent years. In fact, studies show that female athletes are three times more likely to tear their ACL than males.
The basic anatomical differences between male and female hip structures make women more predisposed to lower-body injuries, especially around the knee. Female athletes also experience shoulder injuries more frequently than men because females naturally have less upper-body strength. This lack of shoulder stability often results in more rotator cuff injuries, shoulder pain and tightness for girls in sports like volleyball, swimming or softball.
Broken bones are also a bigger concern for female athletes than males. Due to smaller bone dimensions and lower bone density, females tend to suffer from stress fractures, breaks and other bone injuries more frequently than males participating in a similar level of athletic activity. This puts females at a higher risk of developing a bone-thinning condition like osteoporosis earlier in life.
It's important for anyone actively involved in a sport to be aware of the types of injury they're most susceptible to. Some athletes may be prone to certain injuries due to their gender, which makes recognizing sex-based injury differences a key component to injury prevention and treatment. Knowing the kinds of injuries you're susceptible to and why can help you prepare and strengthen your body to prevent them.
Although female athletes are predisposed to knee, shoulder and other musculoskeletal injuries, there are measures they can take to avoid these setbacks. Paying extra attention to bone health, core strengthening and nutrition can reduce females' risk of injury. In later sections, we'll discuss ways both genders can structure their exercise routines to mitigate injury issues.
Why Are Females More Susceptible to Sports Injuries?
Although a combination of factors contributes to the gender gap in sports injuries, the most basic explanation is the differences between men's and women's bodies. Females are generally more likely to suffer a sports-related injury because they are built differently from males. Along with anatomical disparities, there are some physiological differences between men and women that contribute to female athletes' greater risk of injury. Let's take a closer look at the five main variables that put females more at risk of sustaining sports injuries.
1. Anatomical Structure
Typically, women have a wider pelvis than men, which results in their thigh bones angling downward more sharply than men's. This more acute angle alters the alignment of women's lower bodies from the knee to the ankle. As a result of this shift in alignment, a female's knee joint endures greater stress, and the inside of the knee experiences more pressure, which can lead to an ACL tear.
Another anatomical factor that increases the chance of an ACL tear in female athletes is the intercondylar notch. The intercondylar notch is where the ACL passes through the femur and is naturally more narrow in women than men. The ACL itself is also smaller in women, which makes it more prone to tears.
In addition to these bone structure distinctions, females inherently have less muscle mass than men. Research has found that women have about 52% of the upper-body strength and 66% of the lower-body strength that men have on average. Without as much muscle mass to protect their tendons and ligaments from damage, females tend to sustain more sports-related injuries than males.
Females naturally have a different quadriceps to hamstring strength ratio than males. With less hamstring strength, female athletes are more likely to suffer knee injuries than their male counterparts. This is because when the hamstring isn't strong enough to balance the power of the quadriceps, the leg is imbalanced — which can put excess stress on the ACL and cause tearing.
2. Looser Ligaments
Women are inherently more flexible than men, which tends to mean their ligaments have more laxity as well. When put through excessive joint motion, women's ligaments are more prone to overextend than men's. This greater flexibility combined with women's less powerful muscles puts female athletes at a greater risk of injury, especially around the knee.
3. Higher Estrogen Levels
Higher levels of the female hormone estrogen can decrease power and performance as well as weaken tendons and ligaments by lessening their stiffness. This decline in tendon and ligament function makes women more susceptible to ACL tears and other severe ligament injuries. Because estrogen levels rise sharply during puberty and elevate during the menstrual cycle, ACL injuries are more likely to occur in females during these times.
4. Nutrient Deficiencies
Female athletes have a greater likelihood of not getting enough essential nutrients to sustain the rigorous physical activity required by their sport. Although both genders tend not to get enough of certain vitamins and minerals, research has found that female athletes are more likely to have dietary deficiencies in vitamin B12, B3, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and protein. Women are also more likely to have an inadequate intake of calcium and vitamin D, which are essential to bone health and sports injury prevention.
Women also need to be aware of the female athlete triad — the interrelationship between low energy levels, menstrual dysfunction and decreased bone mineral density. With or without an eating disorder, women are more at risk of sports injury and health complications due to these three factors. Staying on top of proper nutrition and vitamin intake, especially vitamin D, is one of the best ways to guard against the female athlete triad.
5. Differences in Movement
Female athletes tend to move differently than male athletes. For example, women often land flat-footed after jumping instead of on the balls of their feet. This improper landing form puts pressure on the knee as opposed to letting the calf absorb the force of the jump, leading to a greater risk of knee injury.
Women also tend to run in a more upright position than men, which places more stress on the ACL and allows for less control over the rotation of the knee joint. Because of their wider pelvis, females tend to use only one foot when quickly changing direction, whereas males typically use both feet for sudden lateral movements. Considering that females have a slightly slower reflex time than males, women's knees take a split second longer the stabilize, putting them at a higher risk of injury during sudden movements.
What Injuries Do Women Suffer From More?
While female athletes tend to sustain more sports injuries overall, there are some specific types of injuries they are especially vulnerable to. Being aware of these common injuries and their causes can help female athletes know which preventative measures to take and how to plan their training or adjust their form accordingly. Here are six sports-related injuries most frequently found in female athletes:
- Knee injuries: Along with ligament damage like an ACL tear, females tend to have increased rates of irritation under the knee cap known as patellofemoral syndrome.
- Ankle sprains: Although an ankle sprain is the most common sports injury in both genders, it is even more common for women.
- Shoulder strains: The instability around female athlete's shoulders can lead to rotator cuff problems as well as inflammation and tendinitis in the upper-arm area.
- Plantar fasciitis: Plantar fasciitis stems from small tears in the supporting tissues around the heel and arch, which may be attributed to flat feet or abnormal alignment of the foot.
- Shin splints: As an overuse injury, shin splints are more common in females because they don't have as much muscle mass to sustain breakdown. In general, girls are more prone to overuse injuries than boys.
- Stress fractures: Female athletes who don't practice proper nutrition, have irregular periods or bone loss may suffer from stress fractures, especially in the lower leg or foot.
What Injuries Do Men Suffer From More?
Because men's sports tend to be more contact-centered, male athletes may be more at risk for acute trauma injuries rather than overuse injuries. The injuries sustained by male athletes are typically due to contact with another player, whereas female athletes incur injury from contact with playing equipment more often. Studies have found that male athletes are most likely to get injured during the opening or closing 15 minutes of a competition when contact and rough play are at higher levels.
Although women have higher numbers for most sports injuries, men have a significantly higher rate of hip and groin injuries than their female counterparts. This difference is typically attributed to a difference in anatomy that keeps female hips protected from certain types of hip injuries. A focus on weight lifting can also put males at a higher risk for soft-tissue injuries like a bicep tendon tear.
While female athletes are more prone to sports-related injury overall, male athletes are not immune. Men still frequently suffer from injuries like ankle sprains, ACL tears and tennis elbow. Although men suffer from ligament and tendon issues, male athletes have a higher rate of return to their sport post-surgery.
How to Prevent Injury in Both Genders
Regardless of gender, there are some basic preventative measures you can take to lessen your chance of injury. Much of sports-related injury risk is linked with your amount of training and how adequately prepared your body is for the physical demands of your sport. Less than enough training could result in a lack of strength, flexibility or proper form to encourage injury, whereas too much training could lead to an overuse injury. To help avoid either of those situations, follow these five tips on how to prevent a sports-related injury:
- Stretch: Be sure to fully warm up major muscles before working out and keep them supple by cooling down and stretching after exercise.
- Base train: Engage in pre-season workouts to build endurance, strengthen your muscles and get your body ready to handle the stressors of the season.
- Avoid overuse: Getting proper rest and recovery in between workouts is crucial to rebuilding muscle and maintaining overall health.
- Use protective equipment: Wear the proper safety equipment for your sport to mitigate the chance of an acute trauma injury.
- Hydrate: Drink plenty of water before, during and after practice to stay hydrated and fend off fatigue.
Of course, even the most careful athletes get injured sometimes. Because males generally have a greater muscle mass than females and build muscle more easily, male athletes tend to recover more quickly from physical injuries than females. When a female athlete suffers an injury that requires refraining from strenuous activity, such as a strain or sprain, she should concentrate on safely maintaining muscle tone throughout recovery. Participating in low-stress exercise like yoga and consuming more protein can help an injured individual build and preserve muscle to make an efficient and full recovery.
Address Your Sports-Related Knee, Hip or Shoulder Injury With Dr. Mufaddal Gombera
No matter your gender or how careful you are, sports injuries can be inevitable. If you've experienced a sports-related injury to your knee, hip or shoulder, contact Dr. Mufaddal Gombera today to receive expert care. As a trained orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee, hip and shoulder injuries, Dr. Gombera uses the latest treatments to help patients recover quickly and oftentimes avoid the need for surgery altogether.
Located in the heart of Houston, Dr. Gombera's practice at Fondren Orthopedic Group and Texas Orthopedic Hospital is open to anyone with knee, shoulder or hip pain looking for personalized care. Dr. Gombera and his team deliver specialized treatments to get patients back on their feet as soon as possible while using minimally invasive methods.
If you've sustained a sports-related injury, book an appointment with Dr. Gombera online or call 713-794-3457 today.