Youth soccer concussions increasing

As soccer gains popularity in the United States, there’s been a huge rise in the number and rate of injuries — especially concussions — among young people, according to a new Nationwide Children’s Hospital study.

Between 1990 and 2014, the yearly number of soccer-related injuries among 7- to 17-year-olds treated in emergency departments in the United States increased by 78 percent, according to a study by the hospital’s Center for Injury Research and Policy published online today in the journal Pediatrics. The annual number of injuries also rose by 111 percent over that time span.

The majority of injuries were sprains and strains (35 percent), fractures (23 percent) and soft-tissue injuries (22 percent), said Dr. Huiyun Xiang, senior author of the study and a research director at the center.

While concussions and other “closed-head” injuries accounted for just more than 7 percent of the injuries overall, the number of these injuries increased dramatically: Nearly 1,600 percent, the study found. And athletes with concussions were twice as likely to be admitted to the hospital as patients with other diagnoses.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen such a big increase; it was a big surprise,” Xiang said.

He credited the jump in injuries to the sport’s rising popularity with more than 3 million registered soccer players younger than 19 playing each year; a growing intensity of play; and year-round play opportunities with club, travel and recreation leagues.

Increased awareness about the dangers of concussions also has led more coaches and players to seek treatment for players as a precaution.

“While we can’t tell from our data why the rate of concussions among soccer players is increasing, it is important for athletes and families to be aware of this issue and what they can do to reduce the risks,” said Tracy Mehan, a research manager at the injury research center.

Young athletes take longer to recover from concussions than adults, she said. They’re also at risk of getting repeat concussions and “second-impact syndrome” — when the brain swells rapidly and catastrophically after a second concussion before the symptoms of an earlier one have subsided. Both can lead to serious, life-altering injuries.

That’s a lesson 15-year-old Joshua Zweydorff, a varsity goalie for Madison Christian School in Groveport, takes seriously.

The sophomore was kneed in the head during a game and suffered a mild to moderate concussion last year, he said. He doesn’t remember the impact — or anything that happened many days after — but still feels the effects because he didn’t sit on the sidelines long enough.

Eager to get back on the field, he fibbed about his frequent headaches and memory loss and resumed playing after about two weeks. He now realizes he made a dangerous decision.

“I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone,” Zweydorff said. “Before you get back in the game, you need to make sure you’re 100 percent recovered. People told me that but I was stubborn. I didn’t take care of myself like I should have.”

Researchers are still trying to find out what is the optimal amount of time a youngster should sit out after experiencing a concussion to avoid long-term problems, Xiang said.

The Nationwide Children’s Hospital study also found that players 12 to 17 years old accounted for nearly three-fourths of the injuries, and that girls were more likely than boys to sustain a knee or ankle injury.

The researchers offered the following tips to help avoid injuries:

* Participate in a preseason conditioning program that focuses on building core muscles, strengthening neck muscles and working on hip and thigh strength.

* Warm up before you play.

* Always wear the recommended protective gear such as mouth and shin guards.

* Follow and enforce the rules because many injuries occur during illegal play or when coaches or referees don’t enforce the rules.

* Know the signs of concussion and encourage players to report any hits to the head even if they happen in practice.

* Only allow heading once children reach age 11 and even then limit the amount of heading in practice for children 11 to 13 years old.

Despite the increased risk of injuries in recent years, parents shouldn’t keep their children from playing soccer, Xiang said.

“We’re not trying to scare them away from playing sports,” he said. “In fact, scientific evidence shows that playing sports can enhance children’s academic performance and offer good health benefits, such as preventing obesity. We just want them to go out and play safely.”-By Encarnacion Pyle and Alissa Widman Neese, The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)