By Ideen Ghorbani
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says up to 3.8 million sports-related concussions are treated in the emergency room each year.
Conversations about concussions in sports tend to focus on heavy-hitting sports like football or boxing, but the issue of traumatic brain injuries extends beyond the gridiron.
The Journal of Athletic Training found soccer ranked second to football for concussions among high school and college athletes.
Robert Beebe is the former goalkeeper for the University of South Carolina men’s soccer team who now plays professionally for the Charleston Battery. Beebe suffered his first soccer concussion when he was just 13-years-old, but his first diagnosed concussion occurred two years later.
“I was 15-years-old and it was at practice. One of my buddies ripped a shot from five or six yards away and I just ate it in the face,” Beebe said. “I was like I’m fine, I’m fine, I just need some Advil. That was the first time I ever had the symptom of being in a cloud or being in a fog.”
The foggy feeling he’s talking about is one of several common concussion indicators. Other symptoms include disorientation, nausea, headaches, memory loss and dizziness.
Developing more protective headgear seems like an obvious solution to sports-related head injuries, but it’s not necessarily the answer.
Concussions don't occur on the surface of the brain, but more so towards the center. The brain moves around within the skull when you suffer a blow to the head.
High-impact hits cause the brain to bounce back and forth, rebounding off the inside of the skull and stretching the tissue inside the brain.
As the brain tissue stretches, the trauma causes the nerve cell connections in the brain to twist and tear, releasing toxic chemicals that can permanently damage brain cells.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is a progressive degenerative brain disease that results in permanent structural and functional changes to the brain.
Compared to a healthy brain, a scan of a brain with advanced CTE reveals the decreased size, larger cavities and general deformity of the brain.
Patrick Grange was often known for his ability to head the soccer ball.
He died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2012 when he was just 29-years-old.
Researchers at Boston University requested Patrick’s brain from his family after death. The results showed Grange was the first soccer player found to have CTE.
Scans of his brain showed a buildup of an abnormal protein called tau that is often linked to CTE. Out of four levels of CTE severity, Patrick’s brain was in stage two. The only way to get CTE, researchers believe, is suffering repetitive blows to the head.
Although Patrick’s family cannot be positive that soccer led to his condition, they say they wished they had discouraged him from heading the soccer ball so much.
For Beebe, however, taking hits is an inevitable part of the game.
“My job is to get hit with the ball. I tell people it’s my occupational hazard. With the nature of my position, I can’t think about playing more carefully. It’s concerning, but it’s something that’s kind of honestly out of sight, out of mind,” Beebe said.
Beebe says it’s common for athletes to ignore the symptoms of a concussion. Medical experts say concussions that go unreported, however, can be very critical. One of those experts is Dr. Jason Stacy, the Director of Sports Medicine and Associate Medical Director at the University of South Carolina.
“There’s the post-concussive type things where people have died from second-impact syndrome. That’s kind of the worst of the worst, worst-case scenario. But those are the reasons why we’re trying to keep people out when they have concussive episodes because they are at risk for further damage, so you want to keep them out of the game,” Stacy said.
Dr. Stacy says parents and athletes who are concerned whether the benefits of sports outweigh the risks must make that decision on their own.
"It's really got to be a personal decision. Certainly if you're worried about it, you might consider what sports are the right ones for you because the risk is higher in certain sports," Dr. Stacy said. "But I think when you start getting multiple injuries, it may be time to say enough is enough, it's time we try something different."
Concussions happen more often in some sports than others, but they can occur in any sport or recreational activity.
You should always report the symptoms and seek medical attention right away if you feel you or someone you know has suffered a concussion.
Experts say the brain is more sensitive to injury after a concussion and the consequences can be cumulative, so it’s critical to go through the proper protocol and give the brain time to fully heal.
They say it's unclear exactly how many concussions it takes to cause permanent damage, but that it varies based on a person's genetics and some individuals may be more susceptible to concussions than others.