Female Athlete Triad Syndrome – What Is It?

Female Athlete TriadFemale athlete triad syndrome is a dangerous condition that occurs in young women athletes. Female athlete triad syndrome is a combination of primary amenorrhea, disordered eating and premenopausal osteoporosis.

Sports like gymnastics, ballet, distance running, swimming, and diving require young women to have thin, sleek bodies. Frequent weigh-ins and demands to stay at a certain weight put pressure on these young women. This pressure leads to disordered eating or outright eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Athletic training and disordered eating cause changes in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that controls the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland controls the reproductive organs. Changes in the hypothalamus have a domino effect which results in female hormone imbalance such as estrogen deficiency. Fluctuations in estrogen can result in an irregular menstrual cycle. If a young woman does not begin having menstrual periods by age 16 she has primary amenorrhea.

Studies have shown that 15 to 62 percent of female college athletes have actually reported disordered eating behavior. In the general population only 2 to 5 percent of women have amenorrhea. Amenorrhea occurs in up to 66 percent of female athletes! While many female athletes believe that amenorrhea is normal, the opposite is true.

Amenorrhea caused by female athlete triad syndrome needs to be taken very seriously. One complication of female athlete triad syndrome is osteoporosis. Young women can actually lose bone. Weakened bones are more likely to fracture under the stress of athletic competition. Infertility is yet another possible consequence of female athlete triad syndrome.

Doctors can help screen for female athlete triad syndrome during the usual physicals that are required to participate in athletics. Routine questions about the menstrual cycle, activities, and past eating behaviors are useful. Patients, who won’t talk about current disordered eating, will often reveal past eating behavior.