When it comes to athletics, men and women are equal on many levels. But there’s one area where women take the clear lead: sports injuries. Female athletes are two to six times more likely to suffer an injury than men, depending on the sport. In particular, women are more prone to knee injuries.
Women are more likely to develop patellofemoral pain syndrome ("runner’s knee"), the degeneration of the shock-absorbing cartilage under the kneecap that can occur in many kinds of sports and activities. And they’re especially susceptible to a debilitating rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which helps stabilize the knee joint. Injuries to weight-bearing joints like the knee, as well as the ankle and hip, increase the risk of osteoarthritis.
Why the Gender Inequality in Sports Injuries?
A combination of anatomical, biomechanical and other factors are to blame. Women tend to have smaller, weaker muscles supporting their knees, as well as more lax ligaments. They tend to have a wider pelvis than men, and their thigh bones angle inward more sharply from hip to knee (this is called the Q angle), making their knees less stable. To find the Q (quadriceps) angle, doctors measure the angle between two lines—one connecting a point on the front of the hip bone and the center of the kneecap (patella), the other connecting the kneecap and a point on the upper shin-bone (tibial tubercle). An angle greater than normal increases the risk of knee problems.
In addition to all this, women tend to have a relatively greater imbalance between quadriceps and hamstring muscles (with the quads being stronger), which can contribute to knee injuries. There are also biomechanical differences between the way men and women land on their feet, as in running or jumping.
Because hormones may affect ligaments, connective tissue and neuromuscular control, women may also be more prone to injury during certain phases of their menstrual cycles—though more research is needed. On top of all that, training programs for women are generally based on those developed for men and do not take these anatomical and biological differences into account. You can’t change anatomical or biological factors, but you can learn to compensate for them to reduce your risk of injury.
Adapted from The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (December 2011)