Study: Girls Play Soccer Despite Concussions

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Harvard Medical School
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Study: Girls Play Soccer Despite Concussions

News Review From Harvard Medical School

January 21, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study: Girls Play Soccer Despite Concussions

Girl soccer players in middle school often keep playing despite concussions, new research has found. And these injuries are common. About 13% of players had concussions in a typical season, the study found. That was higher than reported in previous studies of high school and college players. Researchers recruited 351 girls from elite soccer teams. They were 11 through 14 years old. The study covered the years 2008 through 2012. About 82% of the girls played for 1 year and 18% for 2 years of the study. Researchers sent weekly e-mails to parents during soccer season. They asked about any blows to the head and any symptoms that followed. Players who had these incidents got phone calls from research staff. They were asked how the injury occurred, whether they continued to play, and what type of care they got. In all, 59 concussions occurred. About 54% occurred during contact with another player and 30% while heading the ball. Nearly 59% of the players continued to play despite symptoms such as headache and dizziness. Only 44% saw a health professional afterward. The journal JAMA Pediatrics published the study. HealthDay News wrote about it January 20.


By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Concussions are very common in middle-school girls who play soccer. And what's even more worrisome is that most of them keep playing even though they have symptoms. This can lead to permanent brain damage.

These are the findings of a study just released in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. Researchers from the University of Washington looked at concussions in 351 girls, ages 11 through 14, who played soccer on elite teams. The study covered the years 2008 through 2012.

Here's what they found:

  • On average, 13% of players each season got concussions.
  • Symptoms of a typical concussion lasted 4 days (median length).
  • Heading the ball caused 30.5% of the concussions.
  • About 54% were caused by contact with another player.
  • About 58% continued to play despite symptoms.
  • Less than half, 44%, sought medical attention.

The last two points are the most worrisome. If you hit your head again when you are recovering from a concussion, the chances of more serious or even permanent brain damage go up. And absolutely everyone who has symptoms of concussion should get medical attention.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

If you have a child who plays sports, it's very important to know the signs and symptoms of concussion. Coaches and others who work with kids playing sports also need to know them.

The signs and symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting (especially soon after a blow to the head)
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble walking
  • Balance problems
  • Difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Irritability or other emotional changes
  • Trouble sleeping

If any of these symptoms happen after a bump on the head, the child should stop playing right away. That is very important. No matter what the coach, parent or anyone says, the child needs to come out of the game or competition right then and there.

If the symptoms are severe right after the injury, especially if the child passes out, he or she should go the emergency room. But even if your child's symptoms are mild, you should:

  • Let your child's doctor know what happened
  • Make an appointment to be seen as soon as possible

What we are learning about concussion is that what kids do -- and don't do -- after the injury has everything to do with how quickly and completely they recover. It's not just another bump to the head that is a problem. Even physical activity or concentrating on schoolwork can interfere with getting better.

That's why it's so important to see a doctor and come up with a specific plan for your child to:

  • Return to play
  • Gradually return to full schoolwork

It's also crucial that everyone in youth sports be very aware of concussion risks and do everything they can to ensure safe play. For example, this study clearly shows that heading the ball can be very dangerous. We should rethink this practice, and perhaps remove it from the game -- at least for young players. 

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

More and more, we are learning about the effects of concussion -- and they are very worrisome. Studies like these give us more information that we can use to keep our children safe. Youth sports are great for kids in so many ways. But when it comes to future success, there's nothing more important than the health of the brain.

Last updated January 21, 2014

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