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Gender gap in treating female athletes

New centers, including at Boston Children’s, seek to understand sports injuries that more commonly plague female athletes

The Boston Globe—June 3, 2013

Chloe O’Connell, 20, of Wellfleet, has gotten pretty adept at using crutches over the last nine months, as she’s waited for the stress fractures in both of her heels to repair themselves.

That determination and focus may be part of what got her injured in the first place.

“I definitely think I overdid it and wasn’t taking care of my body as I should have been,” said O’Connell, a business and economics major at Northeastern University.

Girls differ from boys in anatomical, hormonal, and psychological ways that need to be taken into account, said Dr. Jo A. Hannafin, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

And the risks are increasing as younger children — both girls and boys — focus on one sport, fail to cross-train, and play under tremendous stress.

In addition to being more vulnerable to stress fractures, female athletes are more likely to suffer knee injuries, such as tearing ligaments or patellofemoral syndrome, also known as runner’s knee. They are also more likely to injure their shoulders, which are typically not as strong as a male’s.

Here are some problems that are more common among female athletes:

ACL tears

In addition to facing an increased risk for stress fractures like O’Connell’s, female athletes are more prone to injuring certain bones and ligaments, including the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, in their knee.

To prevent ACL tears and other orthopedic injuries, girls need to be taught from an early age how to land safely. They also should cross train, and not play only one sport all year long, said Hannafin, who founded and directs Hospital for Special Surgery’s Women’s Sports Medicine Center, the first program in the country specifically for female athletes.

Hannafin said she’s seeing problems crop up in younger and younger girls, because of the intensity of today’s middle school sports, and because of the trend to focus on a single sport.

“Once you’ve had injury and had surgery, your knee is never perfect again,” said Hannafin. “The optimal goal is focused prevention.”

This story originally appeared at bostonglobe.com.


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