As many of the world’s leading female athletes descend on the Olympic Games in Sydney, the University of Washington School of Medicine is establishing what may be the nation’s first endowed chair dedicated solely to the study of women’s sports medicine and lifetime fitness.
The new chair, announced today (Sept. 11), will help redress the gap in medical information and public education that leave female athletes far more likely then men to incur a serious sports-related injury. The chair was made possible by a $1 million gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as significant contributions from other community leaders.
“Not everyone can be an Olympic medalist, but every woman has the chance to be active and thereby enhance the quality and duration of her life,” said Dr. Frederick A. Matsen III, chairman of the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. “This new chair marks the start of a comprehensive program devoted to the challenges and opportunities faced by active women, from girls to grandmothers.”
The need for research on physical issues related to female athletes is growing. Since Title IX was approved in 1972, the number of female collegiate athletes has grown from 33,000 to more than 130,000. The number of young women participating in high school sports has grown from 817,000 to over 2.5 million.
But these increases have been accompanied by an alarming rise in serious orthopaedic injuries to women athletes. According to Matsen, female college athletes are four times more likely than men to suffer an injury that will end their season, and at least six times more likely to have a problem that requires surgery.
“The endowment of this chair marks a tremendous step forward in the search to understand the special needs of women athletes in terms of injury prevention and recovery,” said Debbie Armstrong, who started skiing at age 3 and went on to win a gold medal in the women’s giant slalom at the 1984 Winter Olympics. “Sports can be such a positive factor in the lives of women. I am very excited that the University of Washington is launching this effort, which should be a huge help to many women athletes of the future, whether they’re into serious competition or simply want to stay in shape throughout their lifetimes.”
While not an Olympic athlete, Jill Ruckelshaus played serious basketball decades ago ? long before it was trendy. Her love for sport led her to spearhead the effort to raise funds for the new chair.
“Young women today are more athletically active than ever,” Ruckelshaus said. “Doctors also tell us that women athletes are suffering more acute, painful and debilitating physical injuries due to their participation in sports. Answers need to be found on how these women can better protect themselves and remain athletically active their entire lives. “
Among those Ruckelshaus contacted for her cause was Libby Gates Armintrout, who helped bring the need to the attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Like Ruckelshaus and Armstrong, Armintrout played basketball in high school and college, as well as tennis, and knows how sports can build self-confidence and a sense of teamwork among young women.
Armintrout recalls that she and her teammates trained the same as the men’s tennis and basketball teams, and their injuries were treated the same.
“I wasn’t aware of the pattern at the time, but certainly now, after knowing more about the issue, I realize that we had more knee and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in women’s sports than men’s. Two of my teammates weren’t able to finish their amateur sports careers because of ACL injuries,” Armintrout said. “I can only imagine how devastating that would have been for me because participating on sports teams was such an important part of my life. It’s exciting to think that we can make athletics safer for women.”
Other major donors to the endowed chair fund include Ty Scheumann; Bill and Lannie Hoglund; Paul Skinner; and Lisa Brummel.
Doctors are not sure of all the reasons women are more likely than men to suffer sports injuries: it might be related to differences in leg anatomy, differences in the effects of hormones on ligaments and bone, or differences in activity and diet during growth. Current equipment and training techniques do little to recognize these gender-specific differences, Matsen explained. And much women’s sports gear is gear actually designed for men but replicated in “women’s” colors.
Observations so far indicate that women are particularly susceptible to ACL tears. Many such injuries occur when an awkward landing or an unexpected twist of the leg causes a tear in the ligament running from the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (leg bone), Matsen noted. These injuries can prevent continued participation and can lead to arthritis of the knee years down the line. Women also appear particularly susceptible to stress fractures and anterior knee pain.
“When you look at the striking differences in the types of injuries and in the overall injury rates, it is astounding that so little fundamental research has been directed at women’s sports medicine,” Matsen said. “Our goal is to eventually endow a comprehensive, $4 million program that will be forever dedicated to identifying the risk factors particular to women and ways in which these factors can be managed safely for active women of all degrees of participation. This program will not only conduct basic and clinical research, but will also be dedicated to the education of active women, parents, coaches, and the public.”
Recruitment is under way for the first holder of the Endowed Chair for Women’s Sports Medicine and Lifetime Fitness. The individual selected for the position will lead the way in creating a center for Women’s Sports Medicine, a regional program that would be based in the Department of Orthopaedics.
An example of the need for education lies in the fact that the quality of bone throughout a woman’s lifetime is determined in large part by diet and exercise levels when she was a child and adolescent, Matsen explained.
“Much of a woman’s susceptibility to osteoporosis has been determined by the age of 20,” he said. “Thus, active play and a good diet as a child can provide protection from osteoporosis as an adult.”
“Staying fit and playing sports are still a very important part of my life,” said Armintrout. “The Chair for Women’s Sports Medicine and Lifetime Fitness is significant not only for athletes in high school and college, but for everyone.”
NOTE: Graphics about women’s sports medicine are available for viewing or download at http://depts.washington.edu/hsnews/wsm
An extensive list of practical tips for girls and women to stay athletic and fit is available at http://depts.washington.edu/hsnews/wsm/tips.html