SoT: Concussions, and What Youth Get The Most?

Last week, Dr Larry Sherman spoke at Science on Tap about concussions, and should humans play football. Yesterday, the Thorns won the WNSL championship in a very physical game.

Soccer fans collect special scarves, as cheering mechanisms, and there’s one that repeats some commentary about the adult content of the fans cheering: “That isn’t very ladylike, think of the children.”

So children, according to Larry, haven’t developed all their myelination yet. This is the stuff that speeds up the signals along neurons – the insulation on the wiring of the brain. In a developing brain, the neurons are still finding connections, and once they’ve got them, the myelin grows in and protects the young adults. However, a concussion is really a brain bruise – the head whips back and forth, and the brain sloshes inside and hits the skull, damaging this covering.

This heals, an a manner comparable to but different from a bruised calf afternoon a rough tackle on the soccer pitch. Pathways are rebuilt or damaged areas are routed around. But just like repeated strikes to a leg, persistent infringement will get you a yellow card – too many concussions will cause CTE, at which point the myelin isn’t there doing its job, and some of the brain repair mechanisms have in fact defected to the other side.

This cumulative issue starts the clock in childhood, when kids don’t know how to protect their heads, yet the myelin isn’t there to help out. Helmets in football, by the way, have protected from skull shattering problems, but increased these concussive events, partially because the helmet wearer has that feeling of being protected and plays harder, more aggressively.

And not all sports use helmets. Data collected shows boys playing American football are in 4th place in sports related kid concussion injuries.

Number one was girls soccer.

When asked why that was, Larry mentioned something vague about headballs and differently shaped skulls, which doesn’t mesh with lectures from Niki Vance, Oregon’s State Forensic Anthropologist. She had noted that skeletal evidence can easily mistake a large female child for a small adult man, unless you have certain bones around the pelvic region and some evidence of age. There may be some braincase development that happens at different times, but the numbers weren’t drilling down by age.

After the lecture, this topic came up amongst a handful of attendees – including a former professional women’s American football player. Our conclusion was simply that the ladies were more willing to get hurt to be there. Women have fought so long to be recognized, to be allowed to play, that something as little as a collarbone injury isn’t going to keep us off the field.

Case in point: the NC Courage player Taylor Smith who was the first to hit the field in a tussle with Portland’s Tobin Heath during the championship match. She was obviously in a lot of pain, as her shoulder took the weight of both athletes hitting the turf, but after being checked out by the team doc, tried to stay on the pitch. She managed a few more plays, but was pulled off the field and put into a sling. She’d had an AC joint separation,and would be out of action for weeks.

It’s nearly a running joke that an opposing player running too close can cause a defender to dive to the ground and writhe in agony, hoping the ref will stop play…in the men’s games. That sort of drama doesn’t really appear on the women’s pitch. The gals had to prove their toughness to play competitively, and continue to battle it out every game.

And so the Thorns played aggressively to bring home the championship. It was a little ugly at times, but no one bit another players ear (which has happened in men’s soccer. More than once.). This wasn’t a tea party attended by frail grandparents, nor a puppet show for the children, but a professional league finale competition.

Of course the ladies take more head balls and collisions and concussions.