Sports medicine is not just for professional athletes anymore, nor is it just for men. From after-work league players, to dedicated joggers, to beginning exercisers, sports medicine has reached out to address the needs of all kinds of active women. Sports medicine centers are adding programs aimed specifically at women.
Lisa Callahan MD, and Jo Hannafin, MD, founded the Women's Sports Medicine Center (WSMC) in New York in 1998 to meet the particular needs of active women. In their private practices in New York and California, they had seen many problems particular to athletic women that they thought could be best addressed at a women-focused sports medicine center.
"We saw certain injuries that were a lot more common in women than in men," Dr. Callahan explains. "Things like ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] injuries and stress fractures. We also saw women with eating disorders, menstrual cycle problems, and women with questions about things like 'What happens when you get pregnant and still want to exercise?' All these things really are unique to women."
The Women's Sports Medicine Center opened its doors at a time when research was validating what many women knew from their own experience: many women prefer and perceive that they get better care in medical centers devoted to their specific medical needs. A survey on Women's Satisfaction With Primary Care released found that women want medical clinics that offer things like child care, increased privacy, more time during appointments to discuss their concerns, and medical providers who were informed about women's health research and resources.
The Women's Sports Medicine Center offers a model of caring for active women. "When we started building the program, we wanted it to be geared not only for professional athletes, but for recreational athletes, as well as for women who wanted to be more active but maybe didn't know where to start," says Dr. Callahan, WSMC's medical director.
"In our practices we saw patients who were active, but they didn't really feel like they were athletes, so they always felt a little intimidated about going to a sports medicine doctor," Dr. Callahan explains. We also heard women saying they didn't feel like they were taken seriously as athletes. So really, we wanted WSMC to be for everybody."
WSMC offers rehabilitation and diagnostic services, nutritional counseling, orthopedic surgery, exercise consultation, and a dance medicine clinic. A woman who comes to the center may consult a team of physicians and therapists who work together to design a treatment protocol or exercise program just for her.
"There's a particular population that we see that really benefits from the team approach," says Deborah Saint-Phard, MD, formerly of WSMC and a former Olympic shot-putter. Dr. Saint-Phard is a physiatrist, a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation. "There's the woman who has never exercised and wants to start a program. Perhaps she has had a problem, say knee pain. And, before she starts an exercise program, she wants to get it checked out. So she'll come in and see a physician to have her knee evaluated. Once a diagnosis is made, the physician may send the person to one of our physical therapists. But, after that point, once she's ready to start an exercise program, she's ready to work closely with our exercise physiologists, who spend a lot of time showing her how to use the equipment and how to design a specific exercise program and go through it injury free."
"We also work with a nutritionist," she adds. "A lot of times when people have this realization that they want to exercise, they also realize it would be easier to control their weight if they knew exactly what they should be eating."
"We get women who have been told by their doctors that they should exercise and they are intimidated by it," Dr. Callahan says. "They don't know how fast they should walk or what kind of walking shoes they should buy. They've heard they should do strength training for their bones and they are terrified of going into a gym and lifting weights. We have all the pieces that we can put together for them in a very individual way."
The health satisfaction survey found that the number one reason women change medical providers is communication problems: they feel their doctor is either not listening to them, or is acting in a patronizing or condescending manner. Women-oriented medical programs like WSMC seek to overcome that by offering patients a staff that is not only mostly female, but female athletes who can understand and may even have personally experienced the problems the patient is presenting.
Dr. Hannafin is a rower, Dr. Callahan cycles, and Dr. Saint-Phard, the former Olympian, is also a runner. They understand what being involved in a sport or activity means to a woman. "There's a mind-set that you get into when you're into the regular discipline of an activity," Dr. Saint-Phard says. "You derive a certain amount of self-esteem from it, a certain identity from it, and it makes you feel balanced. And I don't think that's only at a professional level. I think recreational athletes are as invested in their physical level of activity and what it means to them."
A 35-year-old runner came to WSMC after being told by other doctors that she would have to give up running altogether. "That was not a good answer for that patient," Dr. Callahan says. "I think she felt comfortable coming here for another opinion because we looked at her, not as a woman who runs, but as a runner who happens to be a woman."
In this case, doctors looked for ways the woman could remain active and remain in shape while her injury was healing, then designed a program to gradually return to a routine of running without re-injuring herself.
Professional and college athletes, as well as dancers from Broadway and touring shows, come to WSMC. But the majority of patients are active women engaged in non-professional sports: cyclists, runners, basketball players, tennis players, rowers, and other women who feel that staying active is important.
"There's a different feeling when they come here than just going to a doctor's office," Dr. Callahan says. "When women come here, I think they get good medical care, but I also think there's that intangible part of feeling like we speak the same language."