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Knee know-how for women

The past several years have seen an increase in the number of women donning athletic equipment or lacing up running shoes. Women are much more likely than men, however, to experience knee injuries. Researchers have discovered several possible reasons why knee problems plague active women.

Smaller anterior cruciate ligament
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a band of fibrous tissue attached to your thigh bone and shin bone that helps stabilize your knee. The ACL is usually smaller in women than in men; it may be that having less tissue to handle the forces placed on the knee makes women more susceptible to knee damage.

Wider hips
That wider pelvis gives women a steeper angle from their hips down to their knees, which translates into more stress on the knees. In contrast, men's slimmer hips allow their thigh bones to connect to their knees at less of an angle.

Female athletes tend to use their quadriceps (the muscles in the front of your thighs) to stabilize their knees, which can lead to tearing of the ACL. Male athletes and nonactive men and women are more likely to rely on their hamstrings (the muscles behind your knees).

Inadequate coaching and poor preseason conditioning
Women's teams are more likely than men's to have inexperienced coaches who may not be aware of training techniques that can help prevent knee injuries. In addition, coaches may be using conditioning methods designed for traditionally male sports, such as football, which focus more on strengthening the upper body. As a result, a woman may start a sports season without the proper muscle strength needed to avoid knee injuries.

Women tend to be more knock-kneed than men, which makes them more vulnerable to tearing the ACL.

Relaxin is a hormone found only in women during pregnancy. Thanks to it, ligaments in the body relax in order to help the pelvis accommodate the baby during birth. It's also thought to increase a pregnant woman's chances of suffering ligament injuries, such as tearing the ACL.

Narrower intercondylar notch
Women tend to have a narrower notch in the bottom of each thigh bone than men do. In certain studies, a narrow notch was associated with higher rates of ACL tears. This may be due to less space for the ACL, or it may be that a smaller notch means a smaller ACL and therefore less tissue stabilizing the knee.

Before you hit the ground running, take the following steps to reduce your risk of knee injury:

  • Strengthen the muscles that support your ankles, knees and lower back, such as your hamstrings and abdominals.
  • If you're active in certain sports, change your techniques. For example, instead of landing with your legs straight when jumping, land with your legs flexed. Ask your coach or trainer for other tips.

Are high heels taking knee damage to new heights?
A recent study compared barefoot walking to walking in high heels. The results showed that high heels increased the load on participants' knees by an average of 23 percent. Because of the angle of your foot in a high-heeled shoe, your ankle can't bend properly, thus placing greater force on your knee. Researchers believe this may increase your risk of developing knee osteoarthritis. So lower your chances, and your height, by slipping on flats instead.

For more information on orthopedic services, or for a physician referral, call (502) 897-8131.