Girls love playing soccer almost as much as boys do, with more than a third of soccer players in this country likely to have a pony tail or pixie cut, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation.
But that popularity has come with a price.
New exercises may help prevent women's knee injuries.
New exercises may help prevent women's knee injuries. Eraxion/istockphoto.com
Girls are three times more likely to injure their knees playing soccer than boys — with some studies finding six times as many of these injuries among girls. It's one particular injury that's causing the most problems: a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL. It can put a player out of commission for up to 6 months, and can have lifelong consequences, such as early onset of osteoarthritic symptoms.
A Swedish team whose study appears in this week's Archives of Internal Medicine shows that it is possible to avoid these injuries in girls. The team — including a physician, an orthopedic surgeon, a physiotherapist and coaches for female soccer players — designed a regimen that reduced the injuries by 77 percent when compared to other teams that didn't use the same techniques.
Independent experts who've reviewed the study disagree with the amount of protection the study claims, but they do say there is a real benefit. Previous studies show that such exercise regimens have been able to reduce injuries by half.
The regimen — called HarmoKnee — involves a series of warm-up exercises and muscle movements such as jogging, high-knee skipping, lunges, squats and curls. It's designed to change motion patterns so that there is less strain on the knee joint, particularly the ligament that links the upper leg bone with the lower one. (Here are some examples: the lateral single leg jump, the knee squat, and the board.
The researchers found that if girls routinely use the techniques, key muscles around the knee are strengthened and balance is improved.
Ideally, says Tim Hewitt a neuromuscular expert in charge of an injury prevention program at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, these exercises should start before girls reach puberty, so that they will be prepared when changes in their body make them more prone to injury.
During puberty, the body takes on mass faster than muscles can develop the power to coordinate. Hewett says if young girls are trained to do the exercises early enough, like junior high school, they develop enough neuromuscular control — strength and coordination — to help protect their knees through and after their growth spurt.
But programs like HarmoKnee have found few takers in athletic programs in the United States. The regimen is a big time investment, with players in the Swedish study undertaking it twice a week in the pre-season and once a week during the regular season.
That may be one reason why just 1 to 2 percent of programs in the United States use the regimens, even though researchers here have been trying to get the word out about just how important they are.