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Intense Sports Training Poses Special Concerns for Female Athletes


WebMD Health News

July 7, 2000 -- From tennis-playing sisters Venus and Serena Williams to the champion U.S. women's soccer team, female athlete powerhouses are carving out spots for themselves in a variety of highly competitive sports. But the intensity of some training regimens that emphasize strict weight limits combined with the close scrutiny of coaches and parents cause some young women to play dangerous games with their health.

"We see the impact of this most in young girls ages 10-19," says Bart Buxton, EdD, ATC, executive director of the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine. "One of the things that is so scary about it is that it has a huge impact on the normal growth patterns in young women."

What exactly is the "it" to which he refers? Doctors call it "female athlete triad." Basically, it's a three-part disorder that affects (1) your eating habits, (2) your menstrual periods, and (3) your bone strength. Young women with female athlete triad don't eat normally and have irregular or no menstrual periods. Over time, the nutritional deficiencies and abnormalities in the menstrual cycle lead to premature thinning of bones that increase the risk of fractures.

In an article published in the June issue of American Family Physician, two Ohio researchers write that though it is not known how many women in the United States may have female athlete triad, studies have reported that up to 62% of female college athletes have disordered eating habits, which includes symptoms of bulimia and/or anorexia. Lost menstrual periods occur in up to 66% of female athletes, compared with only 2-5% of women in the general population. In very young girls, excessive levels of physical activity and rigorous weight control can prevent and delay onset of normal menstruation.

According to Julie A. Hobart, MD, and Douglas R. Smucker, MD, MPH, of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, risk factors for female athlete triad include:

  • Being a competitive athlete
  • Involvement in sports that require you to check your weight often (for example, gymnastics and ice skating)
  • Not having time to spend with friends because the sport takes up all your free time
  • Exercising more than necessary
  • Being pushed by coaches or parents to win at all costs

Loss or interruption of your monthly period is an early warning sign that should be reported to a doctor immediately. Losing your period for as little as three years is enough to cause irreplaceable bone loss. If early bone loss is suspected, your doctor can check for it with special bone scans. Once bone loss does occur, eating more calcium-rich foods and taking calcium supplements may help. Some doctors also recommend hormone replacement therapy similar to that given to women at menopause. But the final word as to whether such therapy actually helps rebuild lost bone is still unknown.

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