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High school injury reports analyzed by InvestigateWest and Pamplin Media show that girls are twice as likely to get concussions as boys in Oregon. Girls in the 13U age group, pictured above, are the youngest allowed to use headers.
 

The Concussion Gap: Head injuries in girls soccer are an ‘Unpublicized Epidemic’

Lee van der Voo, InvestigateWest, photos by David Ball / Pamplin Media Group

 
When it comes to concussion in sports, all eyes are on football, or so it seems. But it’s not just football that causes a high number of head injuries among young athletes.

Another culprit? Girls soccer.

National research has found girls are more likely to suffer a concussion than boys in any sport. In 2017, researchers at Northwestern University generated national headlines when they found concussion rates among young female soccer players were nearly as high as concussion rates for boys playing football — and roughly triple the rate of concussions in boys soccer.

In Oregon, injury reports from public high schools analyzed by InvestigateWest and Pamplin Media Group mirrored that trend, showing soccer concussions were second to those from football between 2015 and 2017. What’s more, at the schools that included the gender of injured athletes, there were nearly twice as many reports of possible concussions for girls playing soccer than boys in the sport.

The rate of concussions in girls soccer worries local experts like Jim Chesnutt, a doctor in sports medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, who says those injuries are not widely recognized, even as concussion rates rise for girls playing soccer.

“In a lot of ways, it’s a growing epidemic for young girls that I think has gone unpublicized,” said Chesnutt, co-director of the Oregon Concussion Awareness and Management Program and a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Traumatic Brain Injury.

More exposure, more injury

It’s understandable that much of the youth concussion conversation centers on football, given the physical contact that is visibly — and audibly — evident on every play, as well as the large rosters and the lengthy lists of players who are injured.

But if you compare girls soccer with football, and only look at the high school participation and injury data, “you’re missing a gigantic part of the picture,” according to Michael Koester, a doctor of sports medicine at the Slocum Center in Eugene. He directs its sports concussion program and serves as the chair of the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee for the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Koester notes that high school boys play eight to 10 football games per season, and typically play other sports in the off-season.

Girls, however, play 15 to 20 soccer games in a high school season, but when that season ends, they may play another 80-plus games throughout the winter, spring and summer with club teams, said Koester, who, like Chesnutt, is a medical adviser to the Oregon Schools Activities Association.

“If we’re looking at injury risk by athletic exposure,” which is one practice or game, a standard in evaluating risk, Koester said, female soccer players probably are playing five if not 10 times more practices and games than football players.

And Koester doesn’t see the trend ending.

“The thought used to be that this was all revolving around, ‘Wow! They want to get their kid a scholarship,’ ” he said. “Now it’s kind of gotten to the point where there’s so much single-sport participation that we see kids that are specializing in sport early, just so they’ll be able to make their high school team.”

Single-sport athletes are more prone to injury in any sport. According to a study by scientists at the University of Wisconsin, high school athletes who specialized in just one sport at an early age were twice as likely to suffer injuries to their lower extremities.

“We see a lot of overuse injury among girls playing soccer,” Koester said. “We see a lot of ACL injury among girls playing soccer. It’s a well-known problem.”

Aggressive play

Another factor is the evolution of sports.

Angella Bond is an athletic trainer for Tuality Sports Medicine and works on the sidelines with athletes at Hillsboro schools. Anecdotally, she said, all athletes push to be bigger, faster and stronger. Soccer is no exception, nor are girls.

As athletes develop, they take bigger hits at higher speeds, and competitive games build on their momentum. As competition grows in girls soccer, the sport is trending to be more aggressive, she said.

“Unfortunately, I think that happens with girls sports,” she said. “Arms fly a little bit more.”

Chesnutt agreed. “I think over the years, soccer has become more physical,” he said. “And I think the physical contact and the aggressive nature of that physical contact is more associated with concussions.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, soccer — unlike football, ice hockey and lacrosse — is not a “collision sport.” But it is a “contact sport” because athletes “routinely make contact with each other or inanimate objects.”

Header balls, though often singled out as a source of concussions, are not necessarily to blame.

The force created when a soccer ball meets a head can rattle a brain, but data increasingly points to other factors when competitors vie for a ball in the air.

According to a study by The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, while headers accounted for 27 percent of concussions, it was knocks with other players on aerial play — including head-to-head contact and arms and elbows to the head — and contact with the ground that accounted for 70 percent of those concussions in girls soccer, suggesting aggressive play is a factor in most concussions involving headers.

Why girls?

But why are girls more prone to concussions than boys while playing soccer? The prevailing theories focus on their weaker neck-muscle development, weaker body strength (needed to stabilize the neck and head during aerial play), and more frequent contact with the ground. A year ago, a study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that female high school soccer players took twice as long as male players to recover.

It’s also possible that girls don’t benefit as much from early treatment. A recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that girls are five times more likely than boys to stay on the pitch and play through a head injury.

And the soccer community has been slow to recognize the hard hits its girls are taking. Instead, soccer is at the forefront of the cultural empowerment of girls.

Local experts concerned about concussion risk note that sports, including girls soccer, have plenty of benefits. Just being physically active is good for kids, and sports like soccer help establish lifelong fitness habits, teach team-building skills, and promote character development and assertiveness.

“The worry is that the take-home message is that (girls soccer) is healthy and fantastic and nothing can be bad about it,” said Koester, who says an opposite negative message, equally extreme, is more often associated with boys playing football.

Greater awareness needed

Concussion education and awareness in girls soccer is paramount, according to local experts such as Chesnutt.

“I think the way to decrease it is to really analyze how we can modify the amount of body contact that goes on in soccer to limit the dangerous aggressive behavior that is associated with concussion,” he said.

Unlike youth football, a sport that’s adjusting to new information about concussions all the time, soccer has largely failed to address new information about concussions, Chesnutt said.

Football, for example, has reduced head-to-head helmet play, limited full-contact practices and games, and zeroed in on the specialty teams with the highest concussion rates.

“Football has really done, I think, an exceptional job of identifying some areas where there have been some definite higher incidents and some problems,” said Chesnutt, who lectures nationally about youth concussions. “As a group of coaches, leagues, parents and referees, they’ve all looked at it and come up with some solutions that have decreased concussion rates. And I think it’s time for soccer to do the same thing.”

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New Rules to Protect Your Kid’s Noggin

May 25, 2019, Parents Magazine

 
Children bonk their head all the time when they’re wrestling with siblings, playing soccer, and just being clumsy-and it’s easy to worry that a bump could turn into something bigger. After all, more than 800,000 kids in the U.S. get a concussion every year. For the first time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released specific “return to learn” and “return to play” guidelines for head injuries, based on 25 years of research. One doctor shares the big takeaways.

ALWAYS take any injury beyond a light head bump seiously. A concussion occurs when a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or a hit to the body makes the brain bounce or twist in the skull. This creates chemical changes and can sometimes damage brain cells. “If your child complains of a headache or dizziness, is nauseous or vomiting, appears dazed, or sleeps more or less than usual, it’s time to get a doctor’s evaluation,” says Dennis Cardone, D.O., associate professor of orthopedic surgery and pediatrics and co-director of the NYU Langone Concussion Center. Even toddlers can get a concussion from a tumble, so look for changes in their behavior such as not wanting to nurse or eat or losing interest in toys.

If diagnosed with a concussion, your child will need menlal rest, says Dr. Cardone. That means taking a break from all activities for two to three days, and after that, starting with light aerobic activity. He may need to attend school for only half the day or do little to no homework (he won’t mind this rule!). However, he shouldn’t return to any sports or strenuous activities that have a high risk of falling or contact (think: field hockey, gymnastics, climbing a tree) until he’s been cleared by his doctor, which should be within a few weeks.

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UCSF Researchers Advocate Prioritizing Teens for Education and Prevention

by Scott Maier (August 17, 2016) — The number of Americans diagnosed with concussions is growing, most significantly in adolescents, according to researchers at UC San Francisco. They recommend that adolescents be prioritized for ongoing work in concussion education, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

The findings appear online August 16, 2016, in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.

“Our study evaluated a large cross-section of the U.S. population,” said lead author Alan Zhang, MD, UCSF Health orthopaedic surgeon. “We were surprised to see that the increase in concussion cases over the past few years mainly were from adolescent patients aged 10 to 19.”

Concussions are a form of mild traumatic brain injury resulting in transient functional and biochemical changes in the brain. They can lead to time lost from sports, work and school, as well as significant medical costs.

Though symptoms resolve in most concussion patients within weeks, some patients’ symptoms last for months, including depression, headache, dizziness and fogginess. Neuroimaging and neuropathological studies also suggest there may be chronic structural abnormalities in the brain following multiple concussions.

Recent studies have shown an increase in traumatic brain injuries diagnosed in many U.S. emergency departments. Smaller cohort studies of pediatric and high school athletes also have indicated a rise in concussions for certain sports, such as football and girls’ soccer. However, this is the first study to assess trends in concussion diagnoses across the general U.S. population in various age groups.

In this study, Zhang and his colleagues evaluated the health records of 8,828,248 members of Humana Inc., a large private payer insurance group. Patients under age 65 who were diagnosed with a concussion between 2007-2014 were categorized by year of diagnosis, age group, sex, concussion classification, and health care setting of diagnosis (emergency department or physician’s office).

Overall, 43,884 patients were diagnosed with a concussion, with 55 percent being male. The highest incidence was in the 15-19 age group at 16.5 concussions per 1,000 patients, followed by ages 10-14 at 10.5, 20-24 at 5.2 and 5-9 at 3.5.

The study found that 56 percent of concussions were diagnosed in the emergency department, 29 percent in a physician’s office, and the remainder in urgent care or inpatient settings. As such, outpatient clinicians should have the same confidence and competence to manage concussion cases as emergency physicians, Zhang said.

A 60 percent increase in concussions occurred from 2007 to 2014 (3,529 to 8,217), with the largest growth in ages 10-14 at 143 percent and 15-19 at 87 percent. Based on classification, 29 percent of concussions were associated with some loss of consciousness.

A possible explanation for the significant number of adolescent concussions is increased participation in sports, said Zhang, MD, who is also assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at UCSF. It also may be reflective of an improved awareness for the injury by patients, parents, coaches, sports medical staff and treating physicians.

For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “HEADS UP” initiative has caused numerous states such as California to alter guidelines for youth concussion treatment.

Many medical centers also are establishing specialty clinics to address this, which could be contributing to the increased awareness. At UCSF, the Sports Concussion Program evaluates and treats athletes who have suffered a sports-related concussion. The team includes experts from sports medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, neuropsychology and neurology. Their combined expertise allows for evaluation, diagnosis and management of athletes with sports concussions, helping them safely recover and return to sports.

Other UCSF orthopaedic surgery contributors to the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine study were senior author Carlin Senter, MD, associate professor; Brian Feeley, MD, associate professor; Caitlin Rugg, MD, resident; and David Sing, clinical research associate.

UC San Francisco (UCSF) is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy; a graduate division with nationally renowned programs in basic, biomedical, translational and population sciences; and a preeminent biomedical research enterprise. It also includes UCSF Health, which comprises two top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco, and other partner and affiliated hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the Bay Area.

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