Recognizing and Treating ACL Injuries in Female Soccer Players

Women’s soccer has grown significantly in popularity over the years. In 2019, there were appropriately 30 million women and girls worldwide participating in the sport. Playing sports, including soccer, comes with many benefits for youth and adult players alike. They can help reduce stress, improve your overall physical health — thereby reducing your risk of developing potentially serious health issues — and boost your self-esteem. For youths in particular, sports may help boost academic performance and instill the importance of teamwork and problem-solving.‌

Despite the benefits that come with playing soccer, there are also a few risks involved. One risk common in this particular sport is ACL injuries.

What Is the ACL?

ACL is an acronym for your anterior cruciate ligament. It’s the ligament or band of tissue that connects your thigh bone to your shinbone. It also provides stability for your knee joint. ‌

The ligament itself is one of four primary ligaments in the knee. You have two collateral and two cruciate ligaments. The collateral ligaments control the sideways motion of your knees, while the cruciate ligaments control the back-and-forth movements. Your ACL runs diagonally in the middle of your knee. Its job is to keep your shinbone from sliding in front of your thigh bone. 

What Causes ACL Injuries?

ACL injuries are unfortunately common in sports such as soccer and other activities that place stress on the knee joints. Causes include:

  • Slowing down, stopping, or changing direction quickly
  • Landing incorrectly from a jump
  • Pivoting incorrectly
  • Getting hit in the knee or colliding with another player‌

These issues can damage the ligament. In mild cases, the tissue may stretch more than normal. With more severe injuries, the tissue may tear partially or completely. 

Why Are ACL Injuries More Common in Female Soccer Players?

An ACL injury can happen to anyone, but they’re more common in females. Several factors can contribute, including:

  • Puberty. During puberty, males produce more testosterone, which plays a role in developing the muscle mass needed to support their increasing height and weight. Females, on the other hand, only produce small amounts of the hormone. For female soccer players, it typically isn’t enough to keep up with their growing muscles. 
  • Female hormones. The hormones a female produces during their menstrual cycle (estrogen, progesterone, and relaxin) can lead to greater flexibility in their muscles, tendons, and ligaments. If you place too much stress on the ACL when the ligaments are looser, it increases the risk of injury.
  • Addition of muscle mass and fat. Both males and females gain lean muscle mass during puberty, but females retain and gain body fat, while males lose it. If the joints aren’t strong enough to support it, this additional stress can increase the risk of ACL injuries. 

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How to Recognize ACL Injuries

If you injure your ACL, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • A popping sound or sensation in the knee
  • Swelling within 24 hours
  • Severe pain in the knee
  • Limited range of motion
  • A feeling of instability in the knee

Treatment Options for ACL Injuries

If you injure your knee while playing soccer or are experiencing symptoms of an ACL injury, you should visit a doctor right away. Immediate care can help determine the severity of the injury and ensure you get the right care to avoid more serious complications. ‌

To diagnose an ACL injury, your doctor may take an image of your knee, such as an X-ray, MRI, or ultrasound. These can help determine the exact issue and the severity. It will also help your doctor figure out the best treatment. ‌

Treating an ACL injury depends on the severity. Treatment may include such things as:

  • Resting, icing, and elevating the injured leg
  • Physical therapy to reduce pain and swelling, strengthen the muscles and ligaments, and restore your range of motion
  • Surgery (followed by physical therapy)

Your doctor will likely provide you with a list of things to avoid when recovering from an ACL injury, whether you need surgery or not. Those instructions often involve avoiding physical activity, which means you may not be able to play soccer for a while. Following those instructions is essential for a speedy recovery, which can help you get back to your sport sooner. Even after you recover, you should still take steps to avoid another injury in the future. 

How to Reduce Your Risk of ACL Injuries

Female soccer players may have a higher risk of ACL injuries, but you can still take measures to keep that risk to a minimum. These include:

  • Training how to land properly from a jump
  • Practicing balance in adverse conditions
  • Performing functional exercises such as lunges, step-ups, and single-leg squats
  • Practicing footwork ‌

You might not always be able to prevent ACL injuries. These steps, however, can help reduce your risk, keeping you safer while you play soccer.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 08, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injuries.”

Frontiers in Physiology: “Effect of Estrogen on Musculoskeletal Performance and Injury Risk.”

Mayo Clinic: “ACL injury,” “ACL Injury: Diagnosis & Treatment.”

New York Post: “Women’s soccer is now a global phenomenon – thanks to the US team.”

Soccer Today: “ACL Injuries: Why Female Soccer Players Are At Greater Risk & What You Can Do.”

University of Missouri Health Care: “Benefits of Sports for Adolescents.”

US Youth Soccer: “ACL Injury and the Female Soccer Player.”

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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