The black and white ball curves through the sky and hits the player’s head before it soars upward again. That brief contact with the soccer ball can cause extensive damage if players are not careful, especially women.
According to American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in gender matched sports, women experience significantly higher concussion rates than men. From 2010-2015, the AAOS found that the concussion rate was higher in girls’ soccer than boys’ football, and from 2014-2015 concussions were more common in girls soccer than any other sport.
Sienna Nealon, a sophomore soccer player at John Brown University, said because she’s had many concussions, she practices hitting the ball with her shoulder instead of her head.
“Other girls practice heading the ball in practice, in order to create proper techniques in preparation for games,” Nealon said.
At JBU, all athletes follow a specific protocol if they get a concussion. JBU Athletic Trainer Holly Bingham said they take concussions much more seriously today than they did ten or fifteen years ago.
Every incoming athlete takes a computerized baseline test known as the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing. This measures their rested, healthy brains with a series of “brain teasers” to give a comparison if they get a concussion.
Then, once athletes are symptom-free, they go through a graduated exercise program. Before they can play again, they must show no signs of concussion during the program, which can take from five days up to weeks, depending on the severity of the concussion.
“It’s just become more understood that [concussions] are important to report,” Bingham said. “So typically, my experience here, I’m not having to seek out the athletes and try to get them to report. They’re really good at coming to us.”
According to a new study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, women soccer players are more likely to have concussions from heading the ball than men players. Although the cause of this is unknown, Michael Lipton, the leader of the study, suggested there are two possibilities for this: “Women may suffer stronger whiplash from a cranial blow because they generally have less muscle mass than men to stabilize the neck and skull. Alternatively, a dip in progesterone, a hormone that protects against swelling in the brain, could heighten women’s vulnerability to brain injury during certain phases of their menstrual cycle.” The study found that female athletes suffered damage of about 2,100 cubic millimeters of brain tissue, which is more than male athletes who averaged just 400 cubic millimeters.
“We have talked about women getting hurt more often than men, and we all definitely know we are more prone to concussions, sadly,” Nealon said.
According to Frontiers in Neurology, relatively little is known about the short-term effects of heading or unintentional head impacts on cognitive function, though such effects, even if transient, might inform mediation of persistent effects of repetitive brain trauma from long-term participation in soccer.
“Concussions and other injuries are important to take care of because you have no clue of knowing how they will affect you long-term,” Nealon said. “Right now, players may be able to bounce back quickly, or play through some things, but not thinking about the future and what may hurt you later on may not be the best idea.”
Bingham said that other concerns arise if athletes do not report a concussion. “Concussions in and of themselves are serious, but if they are treated properly and the athlete recovers from it, they can get back in the sport and continue to play. But if you have an athlete who has a concussion and they haven’t recovered from it, if there’s another collision or another head injury, athletes have died from that.
“One thing that we talk about here a lot is that we treat the whole person.” Bingham said. “We don’t want to just treat someone for a concussion so that they can get better and get back in their sport, we want them to be successful in school and have a good life and not struggle with depression or emotional issues. It’s not always caused with concussions, but concussions can bring some of those symptoms out and make life challenging.”