Head injuries in youth soccer skyrocket

Interest in soccer is skyrocketing among U.S. youth, and so are their injuries.

Especially head injuries.

Results of a 25-year study, released last month by Nationwide Children’s Hospital, set off alarm bells in pediatric health circles. The salient numbers:

The yearly rate of injuries increased 111 percent among players ages 7 to 17.

Soccer-related injuries treated in emergency departments rose 78 percent.

The concussion rate ballooned by nearly 1,600 percent.

The leading types of ailments were sprains or strains (35 percent), fractures (23 percent) or soft tissue injuries (22 percent).

It’s not just raw numbers that are up as participation swells. The study, which was conducted from 1990-2014, portrayed young players as facing an increasing risk of getting hurt.

“We’re seeing athletes play year-round now thanks to club, travel and rec leagues, and the intensity of play is higher than it ever has been,” said study author Huiyun Xiang, director of Research Core at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “These factors combine to lead to more risk of injury.”

It’s scary, but Dr. Vikram Varma, Chairman of Emergency Medicine at Community Medical Center in Toms River, urges perspective when digesting the data.

“What’s happening now is people are much more aware of injuries,” Varma said. “People are more likely to go to their doctor when there are signs of sprains or head injuries.”

The latter is the subject of increasing debate within wellness circles. Some of the concussions are caused by player-to-player collisions, but a 2014 study by the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association found that a sizable chunk of overall concussions came due to heading the ball: 30 percent in boys and 25 percent in girls.

Building on that concern, the Nationwide Children’s Hospital study recommended limiting heading for younger players. It suggested banning heading for those younger than 11 – a practice already put into place by the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2015 – and limiting the amount of heading in practice for anyone younger than 14.

Varma, who played soccer growing up and whose daughters also played the sport, expressed mixed feelings about the concept.

“It’s definitely something to think about,” he said. “I would use common sense. Most of the balls they use tend to be age-appropriate. The speed and velocity they play at is less.”

However, he cautioned, “Any time there is a head injury, the most important thing is to get an assessment.”

To that end, Community Medical Center held free screenings – both concussion and cardiac – on Saturday in Toms River. Such events are held periodically throughout the RWJBarnabas healthcare system. The cardiac screenings are open to athletes ages 6 to 18, while the concussion screening is open to athletes ages 12 and older.

One area where Varma and the study’s authors are in complete agreement: Many soccer injuries stem from illegal play when coaches and referees are lax in enforcing the rules.

“Most of these injuries tend to occur because of bad behavior,” Varma said. “You don’t want kids to push other kids, step on them, head butt them.”

But it’s hard, Varma added, to legislate physical play out of the game simply because players are younger.

“That’s just the nature of soccer,” he said.

The positive, Varma said, is that three million American kids are playing in soccer leagues. He does not want to see the potential for injuries have a chilling effect on participation.

“It’s a good thing kids are playing sports,” he said. “Running around is better than sitting at home.”-Jerry Carino, Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)