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Soccer May Not Be the Safe Alternative to Football You Hoped For

Think that your kids dodged a head injury because they don't play football? Think again.

Youth football is on the decline. While there are many reasons that have caused this, it is clear that part of the blame goes to parents getting the message that this tackle sport presents very real dangers to kids’ brains. So where are all these would-be NFL stars going? It would seem that many parents are opting to send their kids to the soccer pitch instead. Experts want parents to know that this is not necessarily a safer option.

One new study from the Center For Injury Research And Policy found that your kid is kind of screwed either way. The research, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, found that between 1990 and 2014 the number of soccer-related injuries treated in the ER in the U.S. increased by 78 percent, while the yearly rate of injuries increased by 111 percent among youth 7 to 17 years old. About 35 percent of these injuries were sprains or strains, 23 percent were fractures, and 22 percent were soft tissue injuries. Concussions and other closed-head injuries only accounted for 7 percent, and yet this amounted to a nearly 1600 percent increase since 1990. Furthermore, there’s some recent evidence that simply heading the ball — a key skill in the sport — can make one more susceptible to concussions in general. All this might be a good comeback for anyone who thinks soccer is a soft European sport, but it’s bad news for pretty much everything else.

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The risk in soccer seems to fall particularly hard on girls. A recent study found that when you look at gender-matched sports, female soccer players suffer more concussions than any other group. “While American football has been both scientifically and colloquially associated with the highest concussion rates, our study found that girls, and especially those who play soccer, may face a higher risk,” said Wellington Hsu, MD, professor of orthopaedics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of that study. Frightened yet? Fortunately, experts admit that much of the increase in concussions generally could be due to a better recognition of them by medical and coaching staff. That, by all means, is a good thing. Awareness of the problem is an important first step towards keeping your kids safer when they’re playing sports. The US Youth Soccer league have teamed up with the Center for Disease Control to support a project called “Heads Up” that aims to give coaches and others easy access to concussions training courses based on the latest medical knowledge. With more parents aware of the issues, there will be more demand that coaches, referees, and medical professionals on any given pitch are able to spot a concussion and keep young athletes out of harm’s way.

Soccer Injuries Increase Over 25 Years

Flickr / woodleywonderworks

Furthermore, there have been advances in equipment like headgear. While it would have been unheard of even a few years ago to wear headgear in soccer, it’s become a more widely accepted practice, with even pros sporting the kind of headgear that is now common in rugby.

Will this all help make a sport safer? Surely. In the meantime, there’s no reason to pull your kid from the soccer team. Be aware of the risk, look for signs of harm, and talk to them about the risks. And if they’re looking for a sport to play in the off-season, swimming is a fine choice.