Sprained ankle. Tennis elbow. Shin splints. They are ugly injuries to be sure. And you'll probably get one of them sometime. Studies show that most women do.
It doesn't matter whether you practically live at the gym or your idea of a workout is a daily run to the corner 7-Eleven for Red Bull and a pack of Bubble Yum—something nasty is waiting to knock you off your feet. And there you'll be: prying the childproof cap off that bottle of Aleve. Icing your swollen ankle with a bag of frozen peas. Lying motionless in bed at 11 in the morning, trying to make sense of the mind-numbing repartée on The View.
But you know what? There are some simple (ridiculously simple) stretches and strengthening moves that can go a long way toward keeping you off the sidelines. "Taking the time to work weak areas pays off in the long run by minimizing stress on the joints and connective tissues," says Lisa Callahan, M.D., medical director of the Women's Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
We talked with trainers, doctors, and physical therapists to find out which eight aches and breaks you're most likely to face on the court or the track—or even stepping out your front door—and how to avoid them.
Anterior Knee Pain Syndrome
Triggers: Running, skiing, hitting the StairMaster every time you go to the gym.
Up to 25 percent of women will at some point suffer from anterior knee pain syndrome (sometimes called runner's knee). Factors such as loose knee ligaments, a wide pelvis, or weak quads can pull the kneecap out of alignment, inhibiting them from moving smoothly over the joints. This can lead to excessive wear of the cartilage, causing pain and irritation.
Tip-off: A dull, nagging ache that feels worse when you're walking down stairs (when your quads are doing most of the work) or sitting (when cartilage under the kneecap can become irritated).
Comeback strategy: Physical therapy to build strength and flexibility in the quads and hip abductors (the muscles that run up your outer thighs from your knees to your hips), which help keep the kneecaps in place. Think squats. Lots of squats.
Time on the sidelines: Four weeks to six months. The longer you've been hurting, the longer it takes to recover.
Prevent it with: The Total Hipster. Women tend to have weaker hip muscles than men (experts aren't sure why, but they speculate it's because of our wider pelvises, plus habits like sitting with our legs crossed). Sick of squats? Try this move:
Lie on your side with your knees bent and your legs pulled in slightly toward your chest. Keeping your feet together, twist at the hip and raise your knees off the floor as far as you can without lifting your feet. Do 10 reps on each side two to three times a week.
Triggers: Basketball, soccer, skiing, taking a header on a slick sidewalk.
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a tight band of tissue that binds together the bones in the knee to keep the joint stable. If a sharp turn or tumble forces the knee to overtwist or straighten beyond its natural range, the ACL can pull apart or snap. In sports that both men and women play, women are five times as likely as men to go weak in the knees. The exact reason isn't clear—some experts cite differences in hormones or muscle strength.
Another theory is that our wider hips cause the thighbone to slant at an angle toward the knee, possibly rotating the joint inward. This would make it tougher for the nearby ligaments and tendons to hold the knee in place.
Tip-off: A "this cannot be good" pop, accompanied by sudden, searing pain. The intense ouch may disappear within a few minutes, but your knee may begin to look more and more like an overstuffed kielbasa.
Comeback strategy: Two out of three people need surgical reconstruction. The one-hour-plus outpatient procedure typically uses part of a tendon from the knee or tissue from a cadaver to replace the ACL. Then you face several months of PT to strengthen and improve the range of motion of the thighs, hamstrings, and hips. (More squats—yeah!)
Time on the sidelines: Three to six weeks before resuming everyday activity; up to six months before you're back on the court or the slopes.
Prevent it with: The Hamstring Hammer. Strong hamstrings will help keep your leg bones in place and take pressure off the ACL. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping your thighs parallel, bring your right heel up toward your butt. Hold for two seconds. Do 10 reps on each leg two to three times per week.