fbpx

News


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.”

Read the original article
 


Ann C. McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System, which houses the world’s largest brain bank devoted to CTE research, examines a brain earlier this month.(Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)

Researchers close in on CTE diagnosis in living, one brain at a time

By Nancy Armour, August 24, 2018, USA TODAY

BOSTON – Submerged in chemicals in the stainless-steel bowl is the key to life and, researchers hope, death.

It’s a human brain. That of a man who played college football in the 1950s, to be exact. His family donated his brain to get answers for themselves, but what’s found could lead to more answers about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the devastating neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions and repetitive head trauma from football and other contact sports.

“Our main objective, our overarching goal, is to help the people who are living. To be able to diagnose this disease during life,” says Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System, which houses the world’s largest brain bank devoted to CTE research.

“If we can diagnose it, we can monitor it and test therapies to see if they’re effective in treating this disease,” says McKee, director of the CTE Center at Boston University’s School of Medicine. “It would really dramatically increase our ability to point out genetic susceptibilities for this. We’d be able to look at how much is too much in certain individuals or certain positions in certain sports.”

As another football season begins, it inevitably leads to questions and fears about head trauma and its long-term damage. How many hits are too many? What can parents do to protect their children or players do to protect themselves? Are athletes in certain sports more susceptible?

Most important, which athletes will develop CTE – or Parkinson’s or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) – and why?

The answers will come from brains such as the one McKee dissected this month, when USA TODAY Sports toured the brain bank.

The brain bank has more than 500 brains, most of them donated by former athletes or their families who suspected CTE because of mood swings, behavioral changes, depression or dementia. Of those brains, more than 360 had CTE, McKee says.

SEARCHING FOR CLUES

The arrival of a brain sets two teams in motion. One set of clinicians talks to the family to find out more about the donors. Did they play any sports? If so, what and for how long? When did they start? Did they experience any other kind of head trauma, say from an automobile accident, domestic violence or military service? Did they have drug or alcohol problems? How did their mental health change, and when did that occur?

Separately, and usually without any information about the person whose brain it was, McKee and her researchers study the brain. It is cut in half, and one half is stored in a minus-80-degree freezer, so it will be available for molecular, genetic and biochemical studies.

The other half is then photographed and sectioned. After removing the brain stem, McKee uses what looks like a bread knife to cut slices of the brain about a quarter-inch thick.


Ann C. McKee slices the brain into segments about a quarter-inch thick as part of in-depth, time consuming research on the organ. McKee hopes the work will unlock answers to CTE. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
 
Simply by looking at the brain, McKee can tell a few things. The brain of this man, who was in his 80s when he died, has shrunk, noticeably smaller than it should be for a man who once played football. The folds of the brain, normally pressed tightly against one another, are loose and have gaps between them, some large enough that the tip of a finger could be inserted.

She points to the ventricles, chambers in the middle of his brain that are filled with fluid during life. They should be small, but these are “just gigantic.”

“As the brain shrinks, they expand. What this indicates is there’s been enormous shrinkage of the brain,” McKee says. “Those are huge.”

The hippocampus, a section in the middle of the brain that controls memory, is small but not abnormally so for a man in his 80s. If it was, that could be an indication of Alzheimer’s. But a membrane that runs from one side of the brain to the other, normally thick like a rubber band, has shrunk. In some spots, it’s almost invisible.

“This is looking more like frontal predominant atrophy, and that could mean CTE because Alzheimer’s almost always affects the hippocampus,” McKee says. “At this point, I always want to know, ‘What is it? Let’s look under the microscope.’ But you have to wait.”

CTE can’t be seen by the naked eye, and it takes at least three weeks to prepare slides of the brain tissue.


 
CTE is caused by tau, a protein in the brain released as a result of head trauma. When tau clumps together, it damages brain cells and can change the brain’s function. Though tau causes Alzheimer’s, McKee says, the tau that causes CTE looks distinctly different.

Under a microscope, it can be seen in telltale brown spots.

“CTE is very focal. In fact, in its early stages, it’s in the crevices. It just piles up. And that’s around blood vessels,” McKee says. “That’s very different. Alzheimer’s never does that.”

As CTE progresses, those clusters or clumps of tau will spread, and the disease will become more severe. That’s why, in the early stages of disease, stages 1 and 2, the symptoms usually relate to behavioral changes or mood swings. In stages 3 and 4, the disease is exhibited in memory loss.

“We think there may be more pathology in the young players than we’re appreciating just with the tau protein,” McKee says. “We think there’s maybe white matter structural changes or maybe inflammatory changes that are responsible for that loss of control, which is so difficult for the individuals.”

‘EVERY CASE IS A MYSTERY’

Once the slides have been examined, the pathologists and clinicians will come together for a conference. At this point, neither knows what the other does. The clinicians detail what they’ve learned about the brain donor’s history and suggest a diagnosis. The pathologists will then say whether the brain tissue confirms it.

“Every case is a mystery,” McKee says. “It’s not the same way you usually solve a mystery. I solve the pathology first, and then you go back and find out (the history). And then you try and put the two together.”

Some former players and their families once were reluctant to donate their brains, but that stigma largely has disappeared. So much so that McKee said brains arrive at the Boston bank almost every day.

Though that lengthens the time it takes to reach a definitive diagnosis, it will shorten the time before a living diagnosis can be found. In addition to the work done in her lab, McKee shares tissue samples with researchers around the world.

“What we want to do is establish the risk, educate people, educate parents, educate players,” McKee says. “So if they’re unwilling to risk that future self, if they’re unwilling to take that risk because it’s too high for them personally, we want to give them enough data so they can make a very sound and wise decision.”

When that day comes, it will change sports forever.

Read the original article
 

Serving the Brain Injury Community for 30+ years