Female Athlete Triad Syndrome: Symptoms And Treatment

Female Athlete Triad Syndrome

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Diana loved sports as a child. She joined the track team when she was 13 and started exercising every day. Eventually, she exercised more and ate less, which didn’t seem right to her mom. She wanted to be slimmer to run faster.

Within the next month, she had lost eight pounds, missed her period, and fractured her wrist trying to support herself during a fall. In her attempt to excel in sport, she ended up with the female athlete triad syndrome.

Confused? MomJunction tells you about female athlete triad syndrome, who is at risk of acquiring it, and how you can help your daughter showing signs and symptoms of this syndrome.

What Is Female Athlete Triad?

Female athlete triad is a syndrome or a combination of signs and symptoms that young women in sports tend to have. The three visible factors that describe this condition are (1):

1. Low energy levels

Young girls, who have female athlete triad, want to lose weight to perform better at sports. They cut down their calorie intake or avoid a few foods that they believe are bad for them. They eventually lose their appetite and cannot eat normal or recommended quantities even if they try. In some cases, they develop serious eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

The result is that the girls have low energy levels, in spite of appearing to have a healthy body.

[ Read: Excessive Sweating In Teenagers ]

2. Erratic menstrual cycles

Amenorrhea, or abnormal absence of periods, is another factor that indicates female athlete triad. Intense exercise combined with poor diet or nutrition can lead to an imbalance of the hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle. So girls who acquire this syndrome tend to miss their periods for months. However, the absence of periods does not necessarily indicate female athlete triad.

3. Osteoporosis

Low calcium intake can result in low levels of estrogen – the primary female reproductive hormone. Low estrogen levels lead to a condition called osteoporosis, which is weakening of the bones.

Note that the three factors are interlinked. Poor diet leads to rapid weight loss, making the girl extremely thin. Underweight girls are at a higher risk of amenorrhea, which is linked to low levels of estrogen, and that leads to osteoporosis.

If your teenage girl is into sports and has all the above three signs, she needs immediate medical attention.

Who Is At Risk?

Female athlete triad is especially common among athletes in sports that emphasize on leanness or maintaining a specific weight. Examples include ballet, lightweight rowing, figure skating, aerobics, gymnastics, and running. In their attempt to perform excellently, they exercise excessively to shed those extra pounds. But in their determination to do well, they may lose track of how much they are exercising and eating.

Up to 70% female college athletes with the aim of losing weight have reported eating problems, which could indicate the presence of female athlete triad. Also, amenorrhea is high among female college athletes, at 66%. In general women population, the percentages are low, at 2-5% (2).

Symptoms Of Female Athlete Triad

The goal-oriented approach to lose weight and perform better than the rest, combined with the societal pressure, and the trend that “thin is in” are pushing young girls towards female athlete triad. Signs and symptoms of girls who are at the risk of or have developed the female athlete triad are:

  • Weight loss
  • Erratic menstrual cycles
  • Weakness or fatigue, lack of energy
  • Stress
  • Frequent bone related injuries

Also, girls with this disorder:

  • Continue to diet even after reaching their weight goals
  • Are preoccupied with diet and weight
  • Have brittle or weak nails
  • May use laxatives
  • May have dental cavities, especially if they have bulimia and vomit food every time they eat
  • Have heart irregularities, sometimes chest pain
  • Have low blood pressure, poor heart rate

[ Read: Healthy Foods For Teens ]

Individually, these signs and symptoms may indicate other health conditions as well. But, when they are present alongside the three determining factors, they indicate female athlete triad.

Diagnosing Female Athlete Triad

A thorough physical examination is one of the critical diagnostic procedures that the doctors conduct and includes checking the weight and examining the girl for any fractures and injuries that could have been caused due to weak bones.

The medical practitioner will also ask the young girl about her menstrual cycle, moods, and energy levels. Tests will also be conducted for bradycardia, arrhythmia, depression, and disordered eating to get a better idea about the girl’s condition. The child’s history of any eating disorders will also be taken into consideration.

To help the young woman preserve the natural bone density, it is imperative that she gets medical attention within three months of experiencing the symptoms.

Treatment For Female Athlete Triad

Female athlete triad treatment is about helping the young woman with three things:

  • Gaining healthy body weight
  • Regulating the menstrual cycles
  • Restoring bone mineral density to ideal levels

A physician alone will not be able to achieve these goals. The best way to help a girl with this syndrome is to have a team of medical professionals comprising sports therapist, physician, nutritionist, and also a psychologist.

[ Read: Pre-Menstrual Syndrome In Teens ]

The aim of the female athlete triad treatment is to help the child get over any self-image issues and help her learn how to maintain a healthy body weight by eating healthy. Also, the child must be educated about the dangers of over exercising and the importance of having normal, monthly periods (3).

Please note that the female athlete triad recovery times vary from one person to another. The treatment methods used and the response of the athlete’s body to the treatment play an important role in determining the recovery time. Early detection of this syndrome improves the chances of quick recovery in patients.

So, if you see the symptoms of even one of the three factors, seek medical attention for her immediately.

How Can We Prevent Female Athlete Triad?

Learning about prevention is more important than knowing about the treatment. Here are a few things you must help your daughter bear in mind to prevent her from developing this condition.

  • Eat healthily and follow a balanced diet.
  • Exercise moderately or as required by the sport. Most importantly, keep a track of how much you are working out.
  • Keep a track of your periods: make a note of any delays, misses, or other changes.
  • Seek guidance of your sports coach and also a nutritionist to maintain a balance between calorie intake and exercising.

The best way to keep this syndrome at bay is to be aware of how it can affect your daughter and ask her to be aware of the changes in her body. Remember that female athlete triad is best treated when detected early. If not, it can remain a lifelong disorder and in some severe cases, can be fatal.

[ Read: Workouts For Teenage Girls ]

It is okay to want to stay fit, win medals and championships to become a sports star. But placing your health at risk for the sake of fame is not correct. If your child wants to become a sports person, encourage her. Do not push or pressurize her to win. Teach her that sports aren’t always about winning. It is about playing and giving your best!

What are your thoughts about female athlete triad? Share your views about it and tips on how to deal with it here.

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