Uteri Fly High at the Olympics

The 90-year ban on women’s ski jumping in the Olympics is over!

ski-jumperThey’ve prepared for it their entire lives. With speeds descending from dizzying heights in excess of 70 mph and jumps that cover more ground than the length of four hockey rinks, nothing could stop women ski jumpers… except their flying uteruses.

Until last week, women ski jumpers were excluded from the Olympics apparently to protect their reproductive organs (for those of you keeping track, it’s been 90 years since the first skier jumped at Olympics in Chamonix, France).

The notion that physical activity can make women infertile was first popularized during the Victorian era. Echoing that sentiment in 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation warned that ski jumping is, “like jumping down from […] two meters [to] the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”

Luckily, science has prevailed over anecdotal notions to prove that there is no greater risk to the reproductive organs of women ski jumpers than their male counterparts.

In fact, the International Olympic Committee’s Medical Commission stated in 2002 that, “the female reproductive organs are better protected from serious athletic injury than […] male organs. Serious sports injuries to the uterus or ovaries are extremely rare.”

Lindsey Van, a ski jumper from Colorado who has been outspoken on this issue, colorfully responded to Mr. Kasper, noting: “It just makes me nauseous. Like, I kind of want to vomit. I’m sorry, but my baby-making organs are on the inside. Men have an organ on the outside. So if it’s not safe for me jumping down, then my uterus is going to fall out, what about the organ on the outside of the body?”

The simple fact is that women do activities far more dangerous for their reproductive organs, like drive in cars. Despite these daily risks, however, we do not take away their drivers licenses.

Ski jumping is hard on the knees and ligaments of both men and women (Van, for instance, has had four knee surgeries and a ruptured spleen during her ski jumping career), but not on reproductive organs. In fact, the statistical percentage of injuries that occur in ski jumping at the international competition level is very low at 0.01%.

Antiquated misconceptions of women’s reproductive health kept women from jumping at the Olympics. So, urogynecologically speaking, was there any viability in keeping women from jumping? No.

Uterine prolapse – a condition in which the uterus falls out of position – is a very real, sometimes serious medical issue. The uterus is held in place within the pelvis by a group of muscles and ligaments. As these structures weaken, they become unable to hold the uterus in position, and it begins to sag. There are several factors that may contribute to the weakening of the pelvic muscles, including:

  • Loss of muscle tone as the result of aging
  • Injury during vaginal childbirth, especially if the woman has had many babies or large babies (more than 9 pounds)
  • Other factors (obesity, chronic coughing or straining and chronic constipation) all place added tension on the pelvic muscles, and may contribute to the development of uterine prolapse.

Please note that exercise is not listed here, nor on the National Institutes of Health’s list as a probable cause. In fact, abdominal core exercises that many of these athletes do on a regular basis strengthens the levator ani muscles surrounding the bladder and vagina. These exercises are great for women of all ages and should be done daily to keep the pelvic floor in tip top condition.

Can uterine prolapse be prevented?

It may not be possible to prevent all cases of uterine prolapse, but there are steps that can be taken to help reduce the risk:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Exercise regularly (for 20 to 30 minutes, three to five times per week), including Kegel exercises, which may be done up to four times a day.
  • Eat a healthy diet balanced in protein, fat and carbohydrates. For example, eat at least 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Also, eat food that is high in dietary fiber (such as whole grain cereals, legumes and vegetables) and minimize your daily fat intake to 25 to 30 grams.
    • Using the Food Guide Pyramid (visit the web site: mypyramid.gov) is a good way to help ensure that you are meeting your nutrition needs. A healthy diet can help maintain weight and prevent constipation.
  • Stop smoking. This reduces the risk of developing a chronic cough, which can put extra strain on the pelvic muscles.
  • Consider estrogen replacement therapy after menopause.
  • Use correct lifting techniques.

Proper techniques for lifting

  • Do not try to lift objects that are awkward or too heavy for you to lift alone. Also, avoid lifting heavy objects above waist level.
  • Before you lift an object, make sure you have firm footing.
  • To pick up an object that is lower than the level of your waist, keep your back straight, and bend at your knees and hips. Do not bend forward at the waist with your knees straight.
  • Stand with a wide stance close to the object you are trying to pick up, and keep your feet firm on the ground. Tighten your stomach muscles and lift the object using your leg muscles. Straighten your knees in a steady motion. Do not jerk the object up to your body.
  • Stand completely upright without twisting. Always move your feet forward when lifting an object.
  • If you are lifting an object from a table, slide it to the edge to the table so that you can hold it close to your body. Bend your knees so that you are close to the object. Use your legs to lift the object and come to a standing position.
  • Hold packages close to your body with your arms bent. Keep your stomach muscles tight. Take small steps and go slowly.
    • To lower the object, place your feet as you did to lift, tighten stomach muscles and bend your hips and knees.

University of Colorado Urogynecology is a specialty women’s health practice focused on female pelvic health and surgery. Our physicians are also professors & researchers for the CU School of Medicine, one of the top-ranked medical schools in the nation.

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