Risk of brain trauma in athletes extends to soccer players

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- As the weather heats up, more young athletes are hitting the field, and even though the games they are playing seem innocent enough, they may not be as safe as you think.

There is now medical evidence showing that soccer players can sustain the same kind of debilitating brain injury commonly associated with football and hockey players.

That information has some families thinking twice about the sport they considered a safer option.

"They both love it, so it's a great thing for them to focus on," said Lillian Rizzo, a mother of two. "I do worry, but I worry less than I would with other sports."

Soccer is a physical game but rarely turns violent, which is why families like Rizzo's gravitate toward the sport.

“I do feel like soccer is a safer sport than football. That comes up a lot,” Rizzo said.

But soccer players do often collide with each other and fall on the ground. The most frequent blows to the head, however, might come from the intentional act of heading an airborne ball.

"It makes me worry but ... I see them do it all the time and it doesn't seem to hurt them," Rizzo said.

Dr. Kristina Wilson, who runs the concussion clinic at Phoenix Children's Hospital, said every sport comes with the risk of injury.

"Things like football, ice hockey, lacrosse, basketball, wrestling and soccer, for boys, those are the higher risk sports," she said. "I don't counsel them on one sport being better than the other. It's only when we start to see multiple injuries."

Sharon Gorzynski is both a hockey and soccer mom whose son suffered a concussion at age 10 while playing soccer.

"Hockey, honestly, I prefer over soccer, and some people think that's more dangerous but they wear more gear," she said.

Doctors say it's not so much about the sport as it is the injury.

"We see the kids who've had three, four or five concussions, and one of the things that we talk to parents about is the risk of them having a more severe injury ... which really increases after three or more lifetime concussions," Wilson said.

Semi-professional soccer player Patrick Grange recently died of what doctors diagnosed as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously.

The disease has long been known to affect professional hockey and football players. Last year, the first baseball player was diagnosed. Grange just became the first known soccer player to develop CTE.

Researchers at Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System, who have diagnosed scores of CTE cases, said Grange's disease was considered "Stage 2" on the four-point severity scale.

Grange's diagnosis is drawing attention to the possibility that soccer, a sport formerly thought of as safer than football, can also result in brain damage.

“I'd love to tell parents that there's one sport their kids can participate in that they're not going to have any risk of any injury, even head injury, but it just doesn't exist,” Wilson said.

She noted, however, the benefits of physical activity far outweigh the risks.