Heal Like a Girl

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Amid a rise in sports injuries to young women, one athlete’s road to recovery

RUN LIKE A GIRL. Throw like a girl. Fight like a girl. In the last few years, we’ve seen phrases like these become a rally cry of sorts — in marketing campaigns, on T-shirts, in songs — as part of a cultural shift where fierce, young female athletes are beginning to get the recognition they deserve.

One of these young women is Savannah College of Art and Design student Valentina Garcia. When you enter a conversation with the 21-year-old industrial design major from Bogota, Colombia, you’re drawn to her warm demeanor, openness and poise. Five minutes into the conversation, you realize she is also tough, smart, witty and a confident competitor with no quit in her — she helped take SCAD’s cross-country team to the NAIA National Cross Country Championship this past fall, despite fighting through a stress fracture.

FROM LEFT: Valentina Garcia, Dr. Trey Ochsner, Claudia Zyskowski

Unfortunately, she’s not alone. The number of young women and girls with athletic injuries is on the rise. This is partially due to the growing popularity of cutting sports (sports with a lot of running side-to-side and pivots) like lacrosse and flag football. But girls are also getting hurt more frequently than boys who play the same sports. This has led to a wave of research and prevention — because “tear your ACL like a girl” is not a rally anyone wants to join.  

Garcia suffered from a grade three posterior medial tibial stress syndrome, to be exact. She first experienced what she describes as a pain “like the bone being compressed” in her shin in May 2021, just after her outdoor track and field season had ended.

“I’d had a great season and a great time running,” she shares. “It was my first outdoor season, so it was all new energy. I decided to do another 5K because, ‘Why not?’ And that day was when I noticed [my shin] was really hurting.” She tried to convince herself it was nothing, but when the pain persisted, Garcia visited her trainers.

Claudia Zyskowski is the head athletic trainer at SCAD. She and her staff are the first line of defense for injured athletes. “We try to figure out what’s going on with them, and then we either refer them out for more care with a physician, or we do in-house treatments here, along with things like limiting their practice time and what they’re allowed to do at practice,” she says. “Valentina took a break from running, but once she started again, she was back to that pain. We put her in a walking boot to see if that would help calm it down, and it didn’t.” So, they sent her to see Dr. Trey Ochsner of Chatham Orthopaedic Associates.

“We started with X-rays and chatting about her history — how many miles per week she was running, which is an important part of assessing a runner,” Ochsner explains. “You ask if they’re wearing new shoes, if they’ve increased their training regimen, things that would indicate a change in the normal. Then the next step is usually to get an MRI because you can see swelling within the bone itself.”


“As an athlete, you never want to lose the fitness you’ve achieved. So, I bought my first bike and started biking around Savannah and swimming.” — Valentina Garcia


The level of pain and its frequency dictates a patient’s treatment plan. It can be a balancing act between taking the time to let the bone heal (sometimes with the assistance of a walking boot) and getting back to running at a competitive level.

“Valentina’s treatment plan has been a team effort between Valentina and Claudia and our physical therapy staff here,” Ochsner says. He prescribed anti-inflammatories and custom orthotics, and Garcia was completely shut down from running for several weeks. When she eased into it again, she began with an anti-gravity treadmill. Garcia also began cross training, which means training in sports other than an athlete’s primary one. “As an athlete, you never want to lose the fitness you’ve achieved,” she says. “So, I bought my first bike and started biking around Savannah and swimming.”

Dr. Ochsner also recommends vitamin D and calcium supplements for female athletes like Garcia. “There’s plenty of literature to show that women of all ages tend to be lower in vitamin D and calcium [than men],” Ochsner says, noting that vitamin D deficiencies can increase risk for stress fractures. 

Concussions and ACL tears are two other types of injuries that are more prevalent in women and girls — in fact, female athletes are 4.5 times more likely to tear their ACL than a male, Ochsner says. Several factors are at play: neuromuscular control, anatomic differences (“the notch of the femur where the ACL rests is narrower in women, and that puts them at an increased risk,” he explains). Women and girls are generally more flexible and have hypermobility in their joints, which also increases risk. “At the muscular level, they have more quad-dominant muscular control (versus hamstrings) and weaker core stability,” Ochsner says. “Beyond that, you have hormonal imbalances — when a woman has her period, her ligaments actually change.”

Valentina Garcia

Much of this, however, can be counteracted through proper training. Zyskowski and her team at SCAD approach these issues and more with injury prevention in mind.

“We hold thorough physicals at Chatham Orthopaedic at the beginning of the school year, and every athlete who goes through those physicals gets screened for their functional movement and strengths by three separate people,” Zyskowski explains. They’re first screened by one of the athletic trainers, then a physical therapist does a more detailed screening of their movement and, finally, a physician goes over any previous injuries they’ve had, any musculoskeletal abnormalities or anything that seems off.

Based on these findings, the athletic trainers create individualized exercise rehab treatment plans for each athlete that needs a little help. “Say someone is having trouble doing single leg squats,” she says. “We’ll put them on a program to help strengthen their quadriceps muscle and their hamstring muscle.” Zyskowski is also a big proponent of cross training to help prevent overuse injuries like Garcia’s.

As for Garcia, not only did she work her way back to being able to compete with the cross-country team this past fall (still limiting her running by cross training on off days), but she also has embraced swimming and biking so much that she competed in her first triathlon.

“There are lots of little accomplishments that I’ve achieved through this time, even though I haven’t reached my peak in running yet due to the injury,” she says. But that’s just a matter of time, she says. “I’m sure I’ll get over this.”  


PT LIKE A GIRL

Female athletes seeking physical therapy have several options locally, in addition to Chatham Orthopaedic Associates. 

BENCHMARK PHYSICAL THERAPY
This national chain features four local outposts in Savannah.
benchmark.urpt.com

CORA PHYSICAL THERAPY
CORA also has locations throughout Savannah, from downtown to the islands.
coraphysicaltherapy.com

LEDESMA SPORTS MEDICINE
Ledesma offers a zero-gravity treadmill, like the one Garcia used to ease back into running.
ledesmasportsmed.com

OPTIM PHYSICAL THERAPY
Optim utilizes a whole-body approach to integrate movement patterns and enhance everyday joint function.
optimorthopedics.com/physical-therapy

SOUTHCOAST HEALTH PHYSICAL THERAPY
SouthCoast offers a spectrum of PT services at locations in Savannah’s Southside and in Pooler.
southcoasthealth.com/physicaltherapy

ST. JOSEPH’S/CANDLER PHYSICAL THERAPY
Physical therapy at SJC means patients can work in tandem with the hospital system’s larger offerings.
sjchs.org/a-z-services-list/center-for-rehabilitation/therapy-services/physical-therapy