Applied Evidence

Should you suspect the female athlete triad?

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Tx: First, restore sufficient nutrition

When treating a patient with the triad, consider consulting with a sports medicine specialist because these physicians typically are trained in diagnosing and treating this condition. Because low energy availability is the cornerstone of the triad, the priority in treating an affected athlete is to restore sufficient nutrition for caloric needs. Referral to a registered dietitian for full nutritional assessment and meal planning is recommended. If your athlete is unwilling or unable to follow dietary recommendations, refer her to an eating disorder specialist team. Ideally, this specialist team would consist of a registered sport nutritionist, a physician, and a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders.

Drugs that can augment your efforts

Although they play a small role in treating the triad, pharmacologic therapies may be used to augment nutrition counseling. The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor fluoxetine is the only medication approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treating patients with bulimia; it is not approved for those with anorexia nervosa.21

Oral contraceptives may help women return to monthly menses, but they do not normalize the metabolic factors that impair bone formation and bone health. They can be used as a last measure in athletes who will not follow dietary or exercise recommendations, or those who, despite following recommendations, do not have a return to normal menses after 6 months.

Nasal calcitonin may be used to treat low BMD; order a follow-up DXA scan in 12 months to monitor improvement. However, prolonged use of nasal calcitonin may increase the risk for cancer, and in October 2013 nasal calcitonin was withdrawn from the Canadian market.22 For amenorrheic athletes, recommend oral calcium, 1000 to 1300 mg/d, and vitamin D, 400 to 800 IU/d. Ideally, patients should receive these levels of nutrients via dietary intake, but if that is not realistic, supplements may be considered.1,23 Bisphosphonates and selective estrogen receptor modulators are contraindicated for premenopausal athletes.19

Can the patient return to play?

The athlete will need to be medically and psychologically cleared before being allowed to return to play (RTP). If she has menstrual dysfunction or low BMD, these conditions should be addressed as a prerequisite for RTP. If the treating physician, nutritionist, and/or eating disorder specialist team recommends specific treatments or other interventions, the athlete should agree to the treatment plan in order to RTP. The physician or assessment team should determine the time frame for RTP on an individual basis. Athletes who do not comply with treatment regimens should, for their health and safety, be prohibited from return to sports participation.

Athletes who do not comply with treatment regimens should be prohibited from return to sports participation.Focus on prevention

Primary prevention should focus on educating female (and male) athletes about regarding food as fuel, discouraging unhealthy weight loss, and enlisting the support of coaches and governing bodies. An athlete’s coaches may be the first to notice symptoms of the triad as changes in performance or behavior, but coaches should not encourage athletes to lose weight or be involved in determining an athlete’s weight.19

Jennifer Payne, MD, Family Medicine Residency Program, Lancaster General Hospital, 555 N Duke Street, Lancaster, PA 17604; [email protected]


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