The Growing Problem of Concussion in Football for Female Players

Held once every four years, the Women’s World Cup in the game of football has become extremely popular since its inception in 1989. Over 1 billion viewers tuned in to watch the month-long championship game held in France in 2019. More than 30 million women around the world play football, and the next World Cup in 2023 should attract even more fans. Those who make it to the World Cup are among an elite group of talented athletes who proudly represent their country.

Concerns Over Concussion in Football Increase Along with the Sport’s Popularity

Dr. Dawn Comstock works for the Colorado School of Public Health in the United States as an associate professor in epidemiology. Several people concerned about the growing problem of concussion in football reached out to Dr. Comstock during the 2019 Women’s World Cup to gain a better understanding of sports-related brain injuries.

Dr. Comstock has studied the topic of how to make sports safer for teenagers and young adults for more than 10 years. In 2014, President Barack Obama invited Dr. Comstock and four other sports safety research experts to the White House. Each expert spoke at the Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit.

During her time speaking, Dr. Comstock discussed the Reporting Information Online (RIO) program that she developed after extensive research. RIO was the first sports injury surveillance program of its kind in the United States. The program makes it possible for high school trainers to report injuries to a national database.

Football Injuries vs. Injuries from Other Sports

High schools participating in RIO reported injuries from 22 sports during the 2017-2018 season. Of the 22 sports listed, football – called soccer in the United States– came in second only to the American version of football that involves full-body tackles. The rate of injuries reported that season came in at 14 per 1,000 athletic exposures (AE). The rate of injuries for high school girls playing soccer was six per 1,000 AE.

Several other sports, including boys’ lacrosse, boys’ wrestling, boys’ ice hockey, and girls’ basketball had AE rates of four to five per 1,000. Players in these sports tended to have higher injury rates during practice, while girls’ football players had higher injury rates in games.

In terms of specific injuries, girls’ football ranked third among the 22 sports for concussions suffered during games and fifth during practice sessions. All football players had a concussion rate of 39.1 per 10,000 AE during games and 1.0 per 10,000 during practices. Girls and young women tend to suffer concussion in football at a higher rate than boys and young men.

What Specific Actions Cause Concussion in Football?

People often assume that heading the ball in a football game is the leading cause of concussions. Although the rate of concussion is high among players who move the ball forward by bouncing it off their head, the leading cause of football concussions is player-to-player collisions. Approximately 25 percent of female players sustain a concussion after heading the ball. The number more than doubles to 61 percent for injuries caused by players colliding heads with one another.

Collisions continue to occur despite the fact that official football rules prohibit most forms of personal contact. League officials would be wise to step up enforcement of the rules rather than prohibit heading altogether. Players could also benefit from improved training on how to properly head the ball without risking a concussion.

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