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Lower risk of knee injury for female athletes taking the pill

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Female athletes who take oral contraceptives are less likely to suffer serious knee injuries, according to a US study.

Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston analysed a national insurance claims and prescription database of 23,428 young women aged between 15 and 19. They found that women with an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury who were taking the birth control pill were less likely to need corrective surgery than women of the same age with ACL injuries who did not use the pill.

It´s thought that the female hormone oestrogen makes women more vulnerable to ACL injury by weakening this ligament. Previous research has shown that more ACL injuries in women occur during the points of their menstrual cycle when oestrogen levels are high.

“Birth control pills help maintain lower and more consistent levels of oestrogen, which may prevent periodic ACL weakness,” explained lead author and MD-PhD student Aaron Gray. “With this in mind, we examined whether oral contraceptive use protected against ACL injuries that require surgery in women.”

The study showed that women aged 15-19 years in need of ACL reconstructive surgery, the age group with the highest rates of ACL injuries by a wide margin, were 22% less likely to be using the birth control pill than non-injured women of the same age.

Gray added that puberty might explain the high number of ACL injury cases in young women of this age. That´s because puberty brings a sharp rise in oestrogen levels as well as growth spurts in the legs. Following one of these growth spurts, it takes time for a young person to develop good co-ordination with their newly elongated limbs.

“Young athletes currently use birth control pills for various reasons including more predictable cycles and lighter periods,” Gray pointed out. “Injury risk reduction could potentially be added to that list with further, prospective investigations.”

The findings of the study have been published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.