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Intense Sports Training Poses Special Concerns for Female Athletes

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The good news is that simple changes in exercise regimens and eating habits often is enough to bring back the menstrual period, says Tulane's Buxton.

But, the important message for parents and coaches, he says, is that young girls looking for acceptance and to boost their self-esteem through competition are susceptible to this disorder and need help in avoiding it or working through it once it's diagnosed.

"There has to be the removal of the cause," says Buxton, who tells WebMD he has heard plenty of stories of coaches calling girls "cows" and "fat pigs" for not losing or maintaining weight. Parents can help by getting more involved, he says, and, if necessary, getting rid of overbearing coaches and learning more about how early damage to the body and its various systems can lead to a lifelong struggle to recover.

"Hopefully, through education, we can get better discerning parents who become better consumers about the type of coaching activities that their kids get involved with," he says. "You've got to get them into a more healthy environment -- get them on the road to recovery so they don't have to leave their sport."

One group spearheading a movement to educate people about female athlete triad is USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport of gymnastics in the United States. Nancy Marshall, a member of the 1972 Olympic team, is director of the organization's athlete wellness program. An important facet of the program is a resource and referral network that coaches and/or parents can contact for help and advice. The network includes nutritionists, psychologists, sports medicine experts, and others who understand the problems unique to gymnasts.

The program also closely monitors the Olympic teams and intervenes when a problem is spotted. Marshall tells WebMD that a member of the Olympic gold-medal-winning 1996 women's gymnastics team was identified with a potential eating disorder about 18 months prior to the games in Atlanta.

"We immediately informed the coach and the parents that, through our medical staff, we saw signs and were concerned," Marshall says. "There were conditions and stipulations that had to be met before we allowed her to travel again as a national team member. She had to have ongoing treatment by a medical doctor; certain tests had to be performed. ... There was early intervention, and in a couple of months, she was really well and back on the team and was one of the ones that enabled the team to win a gold medal."

 

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