Sex differences in muscle morphology of the knee flexors and knee extensors

Introduction Females experience higher risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries; males experience higher risk of hamstring strain injuries. Differences in injury may be partially due to sex differences in knee flexor (KF) to knee extensor (KE) muscle size ratio and the proportional size of constituent muscles. Purpose To compare the absolute and proportional size, and mass distribution, of individual KE and KF muscles, as well as overall size and balance (size ratio) of these muscle groups between the sexes. Methods T1-weighted axial plane MR images (1.5T) of healthy untrained young males and females (32 vs 34) were acquired to determine thigh muscle anatomical cross-sectional area (ACSA). Maximal ACSA (ACSAmax) of constituent muscles, summated for KF and KE muscle groups, and the KF:KE ratio were calculated. Results Females had 25.3% smaller KE ACSAmax (70.9±12.1 vs 93.6±10.3 cm2; P<0.001) and 29.6% smaller KF ACSAmax than males (38.8±7.3cm2 vs 55.1±7.3cm2; P<0.001). Consequently, females had lower KF:KE ACSA ratio (P = 0.031). There were sex differences in the proportional size of 2/4 KE and 5/6 KF. In females, vastus lateralis (VL), biceps femoris long-head (BFlh) and semimembranosus (SM) were a greater proportion and sartorius (SA), gracilis (GR) and biceps femoris short-head (BFsh) a smaller proportion of their respective muscle groups compared to males (All P<0.05). Conclusion Sex differences in KF:KE ACSAmax ratio may contribute to increased risk of ACL injury in females. Sex discrepancies in absolute and proportional size of SA, GR, VL and BFlh may contribute further anatomical explanations for sex differences in injury incidence.