Youth soccer in the United States has exploded in popularity since it first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. But as the number of players has increased, injuries have soared as well.
By evaluating emergency room data from 1990 to 2014, a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics found that the annual injury rate for young soccer players jumped by 111% in the 24-year period. More than 70% of those injuries were in older children, ages 12 to 17. In addition, this age group was more than three times as likely to be injured than younger players.
Sprains or strains were the most common injuries, accounting for 34.6% of all injuries, followed by fractures, which represented 23.2% of all injuries. Soft tissue injuries such as lacerations and abrasions accounted for 21.9% of injuries.
The study is the most comprehensive analysis of youth soccer injuries, but it may actually underestimate the number of soccer-related injuries; the study evaluated only emergency room visits.
Still, the jump in injuries shouldn’t be cause for concern, said Scott Sailor, president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.
“We are so much more aware today than we were 20 years ago about taking care of injuries correctly,” Sailor said. “We’ve been able to see more athletic trainers and health professionals get around student athletes today. … We have more people keeping an eye out for injury and making sure they get proper care.”
The increase coincides with a spike in popularity for the sport. In 1974, there were a little more than 100,000 kids playing soccer in the United States. By 1990, more than 1.5 million children between 5 and 19 were registered with US Youth Soccer. Today, more than 3 million kids, nearly 90% more than in 1990, are registered with the group. High school soccer has more than doubled in the same time period, making it the fastest-growing high school sport.
“We certainly don’t like seeing more kids getting hurt, but if one of the reasons more kids are getting hurt is because they are out there, playing and exercising, then that’s a good thing,” Sailor said.
Keeping the head out of the game
When it came to head injuries, concussions and other closed head injuries accounted for just 7.3% of all injuries in the study period. However, at the same time the annual rate of concussions and closed head injuries jumped almost 1,600% from 1990 to 2014.
While the authors weren’t able to say definitively why the rate of concussions increased over time, they point to a number of factors, including increased participation in the sport, growing awareness of concussions and the passing of youth sports concussion laws that may have led to better recognition of concussions by doctors and athletes.
The authors noted that concussions were most prevalent among patients between 12 and 17, most likely because they played more aggressively than those younger than 12.
How to stay safe
So what can parents do to keep their youngest players safe?
Sailor urges parents to keep eyes open when they go to the field. Look out for facilities in need of upkeep or with equipment issues. Survey the scene to make sure it is a safe environment and make sure it is prepared to respond in case of an injury. Ask questions such as: What are the emergency action plans? Who’s going to participate in the event of an injury? What type of access to health care is there? How easily can medical help get to the field? Is anyone available at practice who is trained or prepared to deal with injury?
“Simple things like asking questions” can keep your youngest teammates safe, Sailor said.
And just as much as children may want to play year-round, make sure they get ample time to rest and exercise other muscles, Sailor said.
“I’m not a big fan of the multiple season thing. I really do think rest and recovery are good for decreasing injury rates,” Sailor said. “Kids going from season to season can really create some problems, both physically and psychologically, as far as things like burnout.”
That doesn’t mean kids can’t play throughout the year though. Sailor suggests athletes play different sports in the off-season to allow muscles to rest as well as to develop different muscles and problem-solving skills.