Protecting girls from concussions

A recent study showed that female soccer players suffer greater symptoms—and have longer recovery times—than their male counterparts following a concussion. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

by Robert Senior

As a sports enthusiast and parent of two young aspiring athletes, it’s been impossible for me to turn away from the ongoing—and long overdue—coverage of concussions in contact sports such as football, rugby and ice hockey. But a study published in last week’s Journal of Neurosurgery Pediatrics, which shed light on the prevalence of head injuries across all sports, caught me by surprise.

The study showed that female soccer players suffer greater symptoms—and have longer recovery times—than their male counterparts following a concussion. This news wasn’t shocking, given the typically smaller stature and lesser neck muscle tone of the female athlete. But the surprise to me came in reading about a related study, including an item that declared soccer was the 2nd-most dangerous sport—number one for girls—in terms of risk for head injury.

The top four sports for concussion were as follows:

  • Football
  • Girls’ Soccer
  • Wrestling
  • Girls’ Basketball

The sheer number of young girls nationwide playing soccer—about 1.5 million—certainly explains at least in part the sport’s high position on that list. For example, in terms of concussion rate, which takes the instances of concussion divided by the number of athletes observed in a specific sport during the study—sports like ice hockey and boys’ lacrosse were higher in terms of causing head injuries than girls’ soccer. However, in terms of gender-comparable sports, girls’ concussion rate was considerably higher (1.7) than that of their male counterparts (1.0).

I grew up during a time when youth soccer was experiencing a period of great growth in the United States. One of many reasons for that growth was the perception of soccer as a ‘safe’ alternative to other youth sports—football, obviously, but the sport was compared favorably to ice hockey, lacrosse, even baseball and basketball. Soccer, it was reasoned, didn’t lend itself to collisions or encourage contact between players.

Although those notions have been proven untrue—soccer is indeed a contact sport, and its players find themselves in perilous positions several times during the average game—I found myself surprised, even skeptical of soccer’s high place on the list of concussion-causing activities. That was until that very afternoon, when I attended my daughter’s game and watched her launch an airborne ball at least 8-10 yards with her forehead.

It was a solid play, praised by her coaches as well as us fans watching from the sidelines. But after the game, I thought back to that study. What if she heads that ball using improper form? What if another player has the same idea, and their heads collide during the play? My daughter is young—it was easy to imagine that play being contested to a greater degree in a high school or college game by the opposing team.

Obviously, girls don’t start playing soccer to avoid the possibility of head injury presented by football. This isn’t an indictment of the sport, it’s a tale of realization that any sport comes with a risk of head injury. Thankfully, today’s young athletes have allies in the doctors and researchers who are creating greater awareness in parents and coaches.

Later this week: One Massachusetts doctor led a successful campaign to have ‘heading’ the ball outlawed in his town’s youth soccer league. A local expert weights in on the potential impact.