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Weak in the Knees?

Hormones and anatomy make women more prone to knee injuries.

WebMD Feature

Feb. 21, 2000 (Billings, Montana) -- You might not be a poster child for women's athletics like college basketball star Jaime Walz. But even if your physical endeavors are no more strenuous than the occasional game of softball or Ultimate Frisbee, listen to the lessons that Walz has learned. They just might save your knees.

Walz, a 22-year-old shooting guard for the Western Kentucky University basketball team, plays hard and trains religiously. She also carries a mark shared by countless other active women: a surgical scar on her knee.

The one-time national high school player of the year shredded the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee during a game in January 1998. She leapt in the air, landed on another player's foot, and heard the ominous "pop" that ended her season.

Plenty of Company

Walz doesn't have to look far for sympathy. Two of her teammates ruptured their ACLs in November of the following year. And practically every team they face includes at least one player in a knee brace.

There's a plague of ACL injuries in women's sports, and they're not limited to basketball -- or to professionals, says Timothy Hewett, Ph.D., Director of Applied Research for the Cincinnati Sportsmedicine and Orthopaedic Center. Soccer, volleyball, softball, and other activities that involve jumping, sudden stops and starts, and rapid pivots can all rip a woman's knee ligaments with remarkable ease, he says.

One in 10 female college athletes suffers a major knee injury (usually an ACL tear) every year -- five to six times more often than their male counterparts, Hewett says. And while nobody knows how often casual athletes injure their knees, it's not a rare event, says Hewett, citing a recent study of recreational soccer players that found that women were roughly five times more likely than men to seriously damage their knee ligaments.

Such statistics can be frightening, but with proper training and conditioning, Hewett says, almost any woman can lessen her chances of a knee injury. And with the first-ever scientifically proven program for preventing knee injuries in female athletes, developed by Hewett and his colleagues, safe play may be more possible than ever.

Anatomy, Hormones, and Technique

Why are women so prone to knee trouble? Biology is partly to blame. A woman's relatively wide hips put extra stress on her joints, and female hormones seem to weaken ligaments, Hewett says.

A woman can't do much about her anatomy or hormones, but other factors are within her control. First of all, women can learn to bend their knees when landing from a jump. Many female athletes invite trouble by keeping their legs straight when they jump, pivot, or land, which requires the knee to absorb a shock equal to four times a woman's body weight. But with bent knees, the force drops by 25%.

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