Anyone playing sports is susceptible to injury, but females are at a greater risk, especially right after puberty. When crunching the actual numbers, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in girls are more than double that in boys, but some sports can increase the chance of injury in females by as much as six times. According to Dr. Cynthia LaBella, a sports medicine specialist in Chicago, this can be attributed to the fact that girls don't get that large surge of testosterone during puberty the way boys do. The hormone is responsible for increasing muscle mass to support bones and tendons, so a lack thereof could make females more at risk. Fortunately, there are preventative measures that can vastly reduce a teen's risk of injury.
Pain as a Warning Sign
You've heard the expression "no pain, no gain," but that definitely doesn't apply here. Anterior knee pain (right under the kneecap) is quite common in teen girls. They may also notice popping or cracking noises when climbing stairs or when rising after sitting for a while, and pain when squatting, jumping, or when shifting to a more intense activity.
These symptoms typically signify that pre-activity stretching wasn't done properly or at all, or that overall training has been inadequate. It could also mean one of the following:
- Imbalanced thigh muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings)
- Pushing too hard with sports or other activities
- Weak or tight quadriceps
- A recent change in shoes
- A recent change in training
These symptoms can lead to excessive stress on the tendons, irritated cartilage, and ultimately torn ligaments that require surgery. When a teen is experiencing this type of pain, she should implement the following strategies until the pain subsides:
- Consult with a doctor or trainer to learn stretching and strengthening techniques
- Change to low-impact sports like biking or swimming
- Ice pack the area for 20 minutes
If a doctor's visit is warranted, the physician may recommend orthotics and anti-inflammatory medications as well.
Research has shown that the right training can result in a 72% reduction in ACL injuries among female athletes 18 and younger. One of these programs is known as plyometrics, and it involves evaluating performance technique and giving feedback on the right form. Specifically, these exercises center around learning how to jump safely and properly so that the landing is soft enough to prevent injury.
The exercises themselves involve hopping over and around cones with one or two legs and different jumping exercises. The good news is that when done right, teens can not only cut down on their risk of ACL injuries, but they can also minimize the risk of strains and sprains to the feet, ankles, and knees.
Dr. Timothy McGuine, a sports medicine research coordinator at the University of Wisconsin, states that implementing these training programs in schools can present some challenges. But if the coaches only had to invest ten minutes at a time in a training program to prevent injuries, it might be easier to get them on board. If you're a parent or guardian, consider talking to your child's coach about such programs.
Adequate Warm-up Routine
The right kind of warmup before hitting the field or court is crucial in preventing knee injuries. Santa Monica Sports Medicine Foundation has come up with the Prevent Injury and Enhance Performance Program (PEP) that specifically targets the prevention of injuries in multiple ways. So while the program utilizes plyometrics, it additionally focuses on properly warming up and cooling down before and after training. This could involve a light jog that keeps the ankles, knees, and hips aligned, a "shuttle run" that uses the hip muscles along the inner and outer thigh to prevent the knee from caving inward, and backwards running to build up and strengthen the hip extensor muscles and the hamstrings.
The muscles that are warmed up are all vital for supporting the knee joint. And the routine itself can be done in only fifteen minutes—a very small investment for a lifetime of protection.
For more information and advice, talk to a doctor who specializes in medical orthopedics.