Female Athlete Triad

high school female volleyball team preparing

Posted on 9/22/2021

Sports and exercise are part of the lives of many young individuals. Typically, people who participate in sports are known to be healthier and less likely to partake in outside negative distractions compared to people who do not play sports. However, for some adolescent girls, when they only focus on the sport and not their bodies, consequences can arise. 
Many girls who participate in sports are at risk for an issue called the female athlete triad. This triad consists of three conditions, and the athlete can have one, two or all three. The three conditions include disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis.

Disordered eating

Disordered eating is a term that refers to an individual having unhealthy eating behaviors and worrying about body image. Some of the most common forms of disordered eating include extreme dieting and restrictive eating. On the top end of the spectrum are eating disorders, which involve things such as self-induced vomiting, binge eating and laxative abuse. An individual can have disordered eating and not be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Most girls with disordered eating are trying to lose weight to help them improve their athletic performance. For these specific athletes, this eating pattern can range from not eating enough calories to sustain the amount of activity that they are participating in, to trying to avoid “bad” foods, all the way to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Amenorrhea

Amenorrhea is the lack of menstruation, or one or more missed menstrual periods. Women who have missed at least three menstrual periods in a row have amenorrhea, as well as girls who have not started their periods by the age of 15. Intense exercise accompanied with not eating enough calories can lead to a decrease in the hormones needed for menstruation. As a result, a girl’s period may never come, become irregular or stop altogether. Some girls who have been participating in sports since a young age may never get their first period, because they have been training so hard. On the other hand, some girls may have gotten their period, but it disappears as their training intensifies or their eating habits change. On one hand, dysfunction of the menstrual cycle can lead to infertility. And on the other hand, it can lead to unplanned pregnancies in young women recovering from the triad. While the cycle is being restored, an egg may be dropped early and, without contraception, pregnancy can occur.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is translated as porous bone. It is a disease in which the density and quality of the bone are reduced. For people with osteoporosis, boss loss overtakes the growth of new bone. Consequently, over time the bone becomes more porous and fragile, and the risk of fracture greatly increases. This typically happens silently, and there are usually no symptoms until the first fracture occurs. In girls with the triad, estrogen is typically lower. Low estrogen accompanied with a poor diet, especially low calcium, can lead to osteoporosis. During the teen years, a lot of bone growth is supposed to happen and the peak bone mass should be reached. An athlete with the female athlete triad will have a hard time getting to her peak bone mass, and it can affect her greatly later in life.

Takeaway: Diagnosing and treatment

Girls who have female athlete triad are typically invested in their sports and would do almost anything to be the best athlete possible. Girls in particular sports have more of a risk than others. Sports with a weight class like wrestling, martial arts and rowing, and sports where being thin is more optimal for performing like gymnastics, diving, figure skating, cross country and ballet, have a higher risk. However, the truth is, being very thin, and losing those last few pounds, doesn’t typically improve performance at all.

If a female athlete is suspected to have the triad, a wide-ranging physical examination is needed for diagnosis. A doctor will likely ask questions about her period, diet, exercise habits and overall feelings about her body. From there, blood test will be ordered to check for vitamin deficiencies and to rule out any other reasons for a lack of period and weight loss. A doctor may also order a bone scan to check for osteoporosis, since the athlete will be at a higher risk for bone breaks.

Doctors will not work alone to help treat a girl with female athlete triad. Coaches, athletic trainers, parents, physical therapists, nutritionists and dietitians and mental health specialists all work together and play a role in the recovery of this athlete. They focus on both the physical and emotional issues that the girl is likely facing to help prevent long term issues.

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By: Wyneisha Mason, MAT, ATC. ‘Neisha is an athletic trainer with RUSH Physical Therapy in Chicago, Illinois.

RUSH is part of the Select Medical Outpatient Division family of brands.