Allison Kasacavage went from an organized, straight-A student to sometimes having difficulty with simple tasks. What changed? The Downingtown East High School sophomore has had five concussions in the last four years.
She got her first concussion playing in a travel soccer league, and then two more within the next 18 months. She eventually quit soccer, but the 15-year-old still suffers symptoms from a concussion incurred six months ago. “It has completely changed her life,” says her mom, Karen. “There are so many things normal kids can do that she can’t do now.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, traumatic brain injuries in children have increased dramatically in the last decade. Between 2001 and 2009, the number of student athletes treated for concussions increased 60%.
Soccer has recently come under particular scrutiny.
According to Dr. Matthew Grady, a pediatric sports medicine physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, girls’ soccer ranks third among sports that cause the most head injuries, behind football and boys’ ice hockey, and ahead of boys’ soccer.
Several theories attempt to explain why girls get more concussions playing soccer. One is that boys tend to have stronger neck muscles and are better able to brace for a collision, says Dr. Grady. Also, roughhouse play may train boys to handle collisions.
Heading — hitting the ball with the head — is seen as a possible culprit, although Dr. Grady believes that it isn’t dangerous if done properly. Jamie McGroarty, girls’ soccer coach at Eastern High School in Voorhees, NJ, agrees that proper heading technique prevents concussions.
When recovering from a concussion, “rest the first week,” says Dr. Grady. “80%-90% of adolescent concussions heal in four weeks, especially if they are given enough time to rest.” He recommends being symptom free before starting schoolwork. That can take a week or two. “The last thing you want to do is increase the demands on the brain while healing.”
There is an increased awareness of concussions among coaches and players. In the past, “you got your bell rung and you just kept playing,” says McGroarty. “You’re more cautious now if there’s even a possibility of a concussion. It hurts when you have to take your best player off the field, but you just can’t take the risk.”
“After three concussions, you worry about the long term effects,” says Dr. Grady. “Three tends to be the magic number,” agrees Wendy Novick, a physical therapist at Nemours / A.I. DuPont
Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. Many doctors recommend quitting the sport after three concussions. “Once you’ve had one concussion, you’re four to six times more likely to have another one,” says Novick.
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.