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Injury prevention advice offered to female athletes during health program

by Chris DeFrancesco - November 10, 2008


Girls who attended a female sports health program at the Health Center Nov. 2 left with plenty to think about.

The more than 100 adolescent athletes and their parents learned from Health Center faculty about a syndrome known as “the female athlete triad,” what they can do today to avoid osteoporosis as adults, and how to reduce their risk of tearing a major knee ligament.

The female athlete triad refers to three interrelated health problems – low energy availability, menstrual disorders, and weak bones – that often are triggered by disordered eating.

Importance of play
UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma told the audience that there is no substitute for “being a kid and doing kid stuff.”

He said when it comes to physical activity, girls start to fall behind boys in middle school.

“When boys are in eighth grade, they do dumb stuff, they wrestle, they beat each other up, they play football, their bodies are constantly in motion, and they’re constantly training themselves without actual professional or parental or coaching training,” he said.

“I think girls for the most part miss out on that. And all of a sudden they get to be in high school and their coach wants to put them through a rigorous program, and they’re not quite prepared for it.”

Auriemma said middle-school girls should force themselves to go out and play, and that both girls and boys should try different sports throughout the year.

His comments were part of a workshop on bone health and injury prevention presented by the Health Center’s New England Musculoskeletal Institute and its Celebrate Health program.

The event was designed to raise awareness of the potential health challenges specific to young female athletes.

Need for calcium
UConn School of Medicine faculty member Susan Gebo, a registered dietitian, said the female athlete triad starts with poor eating habits that are common in athletes, including skipping meals, avoiding certain food groups, strict dieting, and binging.

“As a result of disordered eating, girls are likely to lose their menstrual period,” Gebo said, noting that the resulting lack of estrogen production leads to bone loss.

Bone loss later in life was the focus of Dr. Pam Taxel’s presentation.

Citing research showing that close to 90 percent of females ages 12 to 19 don’t get the recommended daily calcium intake, Taxel, an osteoporosis expert, said it is important for this age group to take sufficient calcium to reach peak bone mass, which can protect against osteoporosis in adulthood.

Taxel recommends a daily intake of 1,300 milligrams of calcium, or four servings of calcium-rich foods, and 400 international units of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium.

She said girls who limit their daily caloric intake can’t expect to get enough calcium and vitamin D.

“Often people tell me they think they need 1,200 calories a day to maintain their weight, but a young female athlete most of the time needs about double that,” Gebo said.

“The truth is, in order to perform, you really need a large amount of calories,” Gebo added, “and a female athlete does a disservice to herself and her team if she’s not feeding herself well.”

Injury prevention
The young athletes also were told that because the strength of their hamstrings doesn’t keep pace with the strength of the quadriceps, they are up to eight times more likely to suffer an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear than their male counterparts.

But Dr. Tom Trojian, a sports medicine specialist, also offered hope. He said the risk of this major knee injury can be greatly reduced in female athletes who re-learn their technique for landing from a jump.

“We identify poor body position, where the hips and knees are straight, landing on flat feet, and we teach good body position,” said Trojian, one of UConn’s team physicians.

“Hips and knees are bent, land on the balls of the feet, and that reduces the risk of ACL injury.”

Trojian said the best time to introduce ACL prevention training is in the eighth or ninth grade, when the connection between the brain and the muscles used for landing are still developing. But the concept “must be well-received by coaches and players to be successful.”

He said the training also has performance-enhancing benefits, including improved vertical jump, hamstring strength, sprint speed, power endurance, and running economy.

“This kind of advice can change your lives. Listen to what these experts have to say,” advised surprise guest Shea Ralph, who played on the UConn women’s basketball team from 1996 to 2001 and is now on Auriemma’s coaching staff.

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