Why female athletes should pay attention to missed periods

With spring sports finishing and fall sports on the horizon, many female athletes train year round to stay in shape. They may be trying to increase mileage and eat healthier to improve their performance. Sometimes, during intense sports seasons, a teen or young woman will realize that her period has stopped.

What’s wrong with that? Not many of us actually enjoy getting our periods. They can cause physical discomfort or irritability and, frankly, they aren’t pleasant. But few people realize the grave consequences when their periods stop because of exercise.

A patient I recently saw joined the track team a few years ago. She developed a passion for running because she loved how good it made her feel and she wanted to be healthy. She met new friends with the same interest, she felt healthy and made sure to eat well, which often meant counting calories or avoiding “junk food.” Because of her hard work, she qualified for state. Unfortunately, she ended up with a stress fracture right before the competition. She tried to run through the pain, but didn’t do as well as hoped.

She came to me after realizing she hadn’t had a period in 4 months. She didn’t think it was a problem because most of her friends weren’t having periods either, but she agreed to see me because her mom was worried. What she didn’t realize is that two healthy things – running and eating a low-fat, low-calorie diet – can be bad when taken to extremes. In other words, you can have too much of a good thing.

Exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle. Aside from the physical benefits, we know that exercise will help lessen risks for developing depression, boost grades, improve self-confidence and decrease the chance that teens will experiment with drugs or alcohol. But it’s important to make sure you’re also meeting your body’s needs.

Some girls who play intense sports are at risk for something called female athlete triad, a combination of abnormal eating patterns, osteoporosis and cessation of periods (amenorrhea). A teen may have one, some, or all of these symptoms. This commonly is seen in sports where body shape and size are important, such as gymnastics or swimming. But any female athlete can develop it.

I was just reading an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper that said only 9 percent of NCAA Division 1 schools are appropriately screening female athletes. I was frustrated when reading this because it means many female athletes aren’t being properly assessed for a condition that can have devastating consequences.

If you are a female athlete, don’t shrug off missed periods. If you are missing periods, see a health care professional and get it checked out.

If you are a coach or parent, make sure the teens and young women in your life are in their best health. Pay close attention if you hear that someone isn’t getting her period or is restricting her eating. It isn’t normal. In the short term, these athletes can develop weakness, fractures and impaired performance. In the long run, it can impact the reproductive system, cause heart problems or even death.

Katie DuBois, MSN, APN~ Katie DuBois, MSN, APN, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin

Katie is an advanced practice nurse in the Adolescent Health and Medicine Program at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. The program provides care for the diverse health needs of adolescents, teens and young adults from age 10 to 21.

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