Headed for Trouble: Soccer's concussion problem
MONTREAL - In recent years parents have made a massive switch into soccer from other more traditional summertime competitive pursuits such as baseball.
But many have learned that soccer, while offering the allure of a significant cardio upside and minimal equipment requirements, is more dangerous than it looks.
Head impact comes with the turf and frequently leads players to suffer concussion. In fact soccer's brain injury toll is considered to be as bad as severe as that of hockey or football.
The sport has now been classified by the American Academy of Pediatricians as a contact collision sport.
McGill's Scott Delaney has studied the problem and said that the real culprit is not from heading the ball, but rather from heads banging against each other.
"Most concussions in soccer occur from head to head contact," said Delaney. "So two players jump to head the ball and bang heads together. You also see elbow-to-head, knee-to-head, ground-to-head, goalpost-to-head."
The scenarios are so common that the accidents are likely as common in soccer as they are in football or hockey, according to David Ellemberg of the University of Montreal.
He notes that even heading the ball frequently can have a cumulative effect.
"There are some studies that suggest using the head over and over again for heading will in the long run affect cognitive functioning," said Ellemberg.
And multiple head injuries can even lead to death.
"There is also something known as the second impact syndrome," said Ellemberg. "That is when we have other concussions on top of previous symptoms. We might have serious physical and brain damage and it could even lead to death."
One 16-year-old learned about the dangers inherent in competing for a soccer ball the hard way. Chloe Ricciardi has suffered two concussions from the sport.
"It's a very contact sport. People don't realize but it is."
Several months ago Ricciardi went up for a header and the ball awkwardly hit the back of her skull. Since then she has suffered irritability and confusion.
"Concentration was a big thing, like i couldn't do any work, tests, nothing," she said.
Her rehabilitation involved considerable time watching from the sidelines as her head slowly heals.
Heading the ball safely requires a certain safe technique, according to the coaches.
"When the ball is coming at you, your eyes are open, you're always seeing where the ball is going to come at you. As you lean back the ball comes towards you and you follow through. You hit it with the hard part of your forehead," said Jose-Luis Valdes, McGill Soccer Redman Head Coach.
"What you would want to avoid is the usual piston, where you close up and you jerk up and hitting the top of your head.
Sometimes players compound the problem by staying in a game even after they've suffered damage.
Matt Gilmour is one who denied his damage in an effort to keep playing.
"I was reluctant to admit to having a concussion while in the game but I think probably after having this experience, I wouldn't do that again," he said.
American authorities recognized the problem by passing the Lystedt Law in 30 states, mandating that any player suspected of having a suffered concussion must see a doctor.
Canada has no such legislation.
Dr. Scott Delaney was surprised by the depth of the problem when he started tending to the McGill soccer team. He has become a fervent proponent of increased prevention and better detection.
He feels that soccer players should done soccer helmets, which are lightweight and discreet. However soccer players have almost universally shunned the headgear.
But the helmet, he insists, would be a great improvement.
"If I jump up and hit somebody on the side of the head and I'm wearing the headgear I'll be protected," said Delaney.
He said that coaches, players and parents must be vigilant while their children play soccer.
Signs to watch out for are, "headaches, nausea, problems with balance and then problems falling asleep or sleeping too much," said Delaney.
And the other key is to make sure that they don't return to the field once the damage is done.
"Every time a child has had a hit, or anything that looks like a concussion you sit them out immediately," Delaney said.