The Female Athlete Triad: An Emerging Role for Physical Therapy
Lippincott Williams and Wilkins
Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy
Over the last thirty years, participation by girls and women in organized athletics has increased dramatically. This presents unique challenges in the area of sports medicine, orthopaedics, and pediatrics. While the benefits of participation in sports and exercise vastly outweigh the risks of permanent injury, an evolving concern is the number of stress fractures in active women. The female athlete triad (“triad”) describes the coexistence of 3 distinct medical conditions that may occur in athletic girls and women. Originally, the triad included eating disorders, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis. Presently, it includes eating disorders/disordered eating behavior, amenorrhea/oligomenorrhea, and decreased bone mineral density (osteoporosis and osteopenia). Briefly, when coupled with inadequate nutrition, the high caloric expenditure of exercise training results in a sustained negative caloric balance or low energy availability, which is exquisitely sensed by the hypothalamus, initiating a complex neuroendocrine adaptive cascade. This cascade is associated with changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis, such that estrogen levels are decreased, resulting in reproductive dysfunction that may include amenorrhea, oligomenorrhea, or anovulation. Low estrogen in otherwise young healthy women, like menopause, is associated with decreased bone mineral density and increased risk of fractures. The triad is not an inevitable consequence of participation in sports or physical activity at any level, however, exercise may contribute to the disruption of caloric balance. The triad is a complex disorder that requires intervention by a multidisciplinary team. Physical therapists bring a unique expertise to the team. The present review summarizes each component of the triad, component linkage, and the role of physical therapy in prevention, assessment, and intervention.