by Marianne Beirne ***
“Yeouch!!” That was the collective sound Team USA and soccer fans around the world said last Monday when star player Clint Dempsey took a nasty kick to the face from opposing Ghana player John Boye during the team’s first match in the 2014 World Cup. Dempsey, U.S. team captain and a member of the Seattle Sounders, ended up with a broken nose and black eye from the contact.
Usually when someone says “impact-related sports injury,” images of bloodied hockey or pummeled (American) football players come to mind. Raging fans aside, people tend not to think of soccer as a high contact sport. Usually soccer is associated with injuries to the knees and legs.
Dempsey’s face injury didn’t stop him from scoring again Sunday against Portugal – a match that ended with another collective groan (OK, really shouts of horror) from Team USA fans. In the last seconds of stoppage time, Portugal’s Silvestre Varela scored on a header to tie the match.
Heading the ball, or headers, are extremely common in soccer. In a sport where you can’t use your hands or arms to advance the ball, every other part of the body is fair game for moving the ball forward and scoring. (See Dempsey’s use of his chest to score against Portugal.) But how safe is heading in soccer?
Current studies are not conclusive. Some have found links between concussions and using the unprotected head to forward the ball in soccer. Others reported that while concussions continue to be a prominent concern, most concussions are caused by player-to-player contact and not by contact with the ball.
Regardless of how they occur, soccer players may exhibit symptoms of a concussion without knowing it. Girls are potentially at higher risk for a concussion than boys.
For parents, that can be disturbing information. Soccer has seemingly never been more popular with children and teens. It’s a great sport for developing reflexes and overall fitness. And it’s fun! So what’s a parent (or soccer player of any age) to do?
“I think it is important that parents and players educate themselves on concussions and their management,” says Virginia Mason’s Jordan Chun, MD, Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. “Head injuries, including concussion, are a significant problem in soccer.”
Dr. Chun noted that the Centers for Disease Control has created free tools for parents, athletes, coaches, and health care professionals that provide excellent information on preventing, recognizing, and responding to a concussion.
Some other things to consider:
- Be aware of the equipment: Whether you fall into the pro-helmet camp or not, be aware of your soccer player’s age and the equipment being used. Padded goal posts help prevent injury with younger players. Water logged or heavier soccer balls should be replaced with safer, lighter ones.
- Be mindful of technique: Heading the ball should be carefully taught as a technique and only with older children. Soccer players will inevitably head the ball in play. Not teaching safe heading skills may actually be more harmful.
- Be cautious about returning to play: In soccer the clock never stops. This means plays are called to keep moving and return to play despite stunning blows or other injuries. But the risk of getting a concussion goes up after each concussion. Ask your soccer coach or athletic trainer to make sure to take players out of the game if they’ve taken a hard hit to the head (from the ball or otherwise).
With a little caution there’s no reason why your Mia Hamm or Clint Dempsey in training can’t continue to play the game they love. It’s still one of the safest sports for children according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. And did I mention that it’s fun?
Marianne loves to give the Sounders her full 90 when she’s lucky enough to catch a game. Otherwise you can find her at Virginia Mason, giving her all to the company’s websites. Go Team USA!