Does Playing Soccer Put Girls at High Risk for Concussions?

By David Webner, M.D., Co- Director, Sports Medicine Fellowship Program; Team Physician, Philadelphia Union

As a parent, ensuring your child’s safety is a job that never ends. And with spring sports officially in full bloom (despite this crazy weather), it’s important to stay mindful of the safety issues sports present to our children, even as we cheer on the sidelines.

A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that girls who play soccer in middle school are not only vulnerable to concussions—a type of traumatic brain injury that jars or shakes the brain inside the skull—but they often end up playing through them as well, increasing the risk of a second concussion.

356128_1916With respect to this age group, it has been well known (and now confirmed by this study) that middle school athletes are more susceptible to sports concussions than high school athletes, but unfortunately, we do not know why. Some hypotheses include a more quickly developing brain that may be at risk due to immature neck and stabilizing musculature, poorer coordination skills (as these athletes are growing more rapidly) and the fact that many of these athletes have not developed and refined their sports skills.All of these factors may put them at risk for additional injuries.

According to the study, over half of the concussions were caused by contact with another player. Additionally, heading the ball (which involves hitting the soccer ball with your forehead to redirect it in play) caused about 30 percent of concussions among the girls.

And even though doctors recommend that those with concussions be evaluated by a doctor and sit out of games and practice until symptoms disappear, 56 percent of soccer players were never evaluated and 58 percent returned to the game without being seen by a healthcare provider.

Although the study only focused on girls between the ages of 11 and 14, this doesn’t mean females are more likely to have sports concussions than males. There has been some speculation about recovery time (female athletes may recover more slowly than their male counterparts), but these claims areonly anecdotal.

It’s not only soccer that increases a child’s risk for a concussion. While athletes can suffer a head injury when participating in any sport, the risk is higher when playing a collision or contact sport. Collision sports include tackle football, ruby, lacrosse, ice hockey, field hockey and boxing. Contact sports include soccer, basketball, gymnastics, cheerleading, volleyball, skiing and snowboarding.

So how can parents and coaches protect their kids from sports concussions?

The best way to protect kids is with prevention and early detection. Kids participating in collision and contact sports need to be fit, trained, experienced and participate in competition with like-skilled athletes.

ckhs-stock-images-111No matter what we do, some children will suffer concussions and timely diagnosis is critical in these instances. When a concussion is suspected the athlete should be safely removed from the field, assessed and treated. In many cases, treatment includes rest from athletics and academics—which means no school, schoolwork or homework. The best thing parents and coaches can do is ask their athletes about symptoms in cases where there is head trauma or neck whiplash-type injuries. Communication and transparency are the best tools to identify and begin concussion management quickly.

Concussion symptoms include physical problems (i.e. headache, neck pain, nausea, head pressure, dizziness, sensitivity to light and sound, balance problems);emotional issues (i.e. irritability, sadness, anxiousness, fogginess, feeling slowed, not feeling right); sleep disturbances (i.e. drowsiness, insomnia); and cognitive problems (i.e. difficulty concentrating or remembering, confusion).

If you don’t have access to a specialist and/or you’re not sure about your child’s condition after sustaining an injury, call 9-1-1 and have him or her evaluated by emergency personnel. While most sports concussions can be managed in an outpatient setting, athletes experiencing a worsening of the symptoms should receive emergency medical care.

Although kids should be able to enjoy playing their favorite sports, it’s up to the parents and coaches to ensure they do so safely.

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