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A new era for women in sport

by Dr Jin Lee

It is an incredibly exciting time for women's sport with participation rates across a wide range of sports at an all-time high. In the last few years, we have seen the addition of professional women’s’ leagues in the AFL, A-league and 2018 will see the addition of the Harvey Norman Women’s competition in the National Rugby League.

We have also seen women’s Rugby Sevens play at the Rio Olympics as well as the recent Commonwealth Games.

Injuries in women’s sports

Although greater participation rates across all sports is an exciting prospect, this also means the potential for more injuries across our female athlete population. At present, our understanding of injuries comes primarily from studies involving professional male athletes and only time will tell whether female athletes suffer injuries in a similar fashion and in similar quantities to their male counterparts.

We currently know that female athletes are at a higher risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. In fact, data suggests that women are up to 8 times (1-4) more likely to suffer an ACL injury than their male counterparts. These numbers are startling when considering the potential time off sport and the extensive rehabilitation times associated with these injuries not to mention the costs associated with treatment. There are many theories as to why women are more predisposed to ACL injuries and further research will allow us to better understand why these injuries are more common in the female population.

Concussion is another injury worthy of note. Although evidence is quite limited, availably injury data from the rugby union and rugby league populations suggest concussion accounts for a large proportion of injuries and this is all the more important for rugby league and rugby union in Australia where participation rates have begun to increase in recent years. These findings are corroborated by studies (4-6) across a range of sports including ice hockey, soccer and basketball where female athletes not only suffer from more concussive injuries but also have prolonged recovery times following these injuries.

Data from the 2003 Rugby World cup (7) for women show a significantly increased rate of injuries in non-finalists compared to finalists (particularly in the areas of fractures and concussions). The suggested implication is that inexperience may also play a significant factor in injury rates. It is certainly accepted in rugby codes and poor tackling techniques can contribute to increased head and neck injuries.

Future directions

An injury database within the women's leagues will provide much needed insight into potential areas for targeted research and allow clinicians to provide medical care specific to the female athlete population. This will undoubtedly ensure that we have more Australians remaining active and enjoying the sports they love whilst staying away from injuries! In the meantime, it is important that appropriate levels of medical coverage, training and coaching be assigned to women’s contact sports, given the potentially higher rates of injury.

1) Voskanian N. ACL Injury prevention in female athletes: review of the literature and practical considerations in implementing an ACL prevention program. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2013;6(2):158-63.
2) Ireland ML. The female ACL: why is it more prone to injury? Orthop Clin North Am. 2002;33(4):637-51.
3) Arendt EA, Agel J, Dick R. Anterior cruciate ligament injury patterns among collegiate men and women. J Athl Train. 1999;34(2):86-92.
4) Stevenson J, Beattie C, Schwartz J, Busconi D. Assessing the effectiveness of neuromuscular training programs in reducing the incidence of anterior cruciate ligament injuries in female athletes. Am J Sports Med. 2015; 43 (2): 482-490
5) Covassin T, Swanik C, Sachs M. Sex differences and the incidence of concussions among collegiate athletes . H Athl Train 2003;38:238-244.
6) Hootman J, Dick R, Agel J. Epidemiology of collegiate injuries for 15 sports: summary and recommendations for injury prevention initiatives. J Athl Train. 2007; 42:311-319.
7) Best J, McIntosh A, Savage T. Rugby World Cup Injury Surveillance Project. BJSM 2005; 39: 812-817

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