Ask a PT: What is the “female athlete triad”?

The female athlete triad occurs in females who train intensively and have insufficient nutrition to meet the demands of the body.  The “triad” consists of menstrual dysfunction, reduced bone mineral density (BMD), and decreased energy. Decreased energy usually occurs first and is primarily due to this lack of proper nutrients to fuel and replenish the body.  If this continues for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to the reduced BMD, and ultimately result in osteopenia, (lower than normal BMD), or osteoporosis (loss of bone quality and structure).  Loss of bone quality and structure increases the risk for stress fracture, which is a small crack in a bone the develops over time.  Also occurring after a prolonged period of lack of proper nutrients, irregular or absent menstrual periods may occur.

These three components do not all come on at once, but rather appear gradually over time.  Some of the symptoms include:

-Low energy at work, school, or during exercise

-Decreased ability to concentrate

-Decreased athletic performance

-Irritability

-Stress fractures

-Changes in eating habits

-Weight loss

-High stress levels

-Change in menstrual cycle regularity

There is usually a mental, emotional, and physical component to the triad.  Body image, competitiveness, self-esteem, and diet may all play a role. Women who participate in highly competitive sports and who are driven to achieve or maintain a certain body type are predisposed to this condition.

This condition is very preventable and treatable. If you suspect that you or a family member or friend may have this problem, or is beginning to develop it, you should consider consulting with a physical therapist, dietician, or physician to begin to reverse the effects before any real physical damage occurs.

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