By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Football League has become the primary focus of concussion discussion in sports, but a former Major League Soccer MVP says it is high time to shine a light on the women and children on fields of play.
"The NFL has been the 'target' but let's be honest, when you look at the statistics of women's and girls' sports, soccer is a huge part of it," Taylor Twellman told Reuters in a recent interview.
"Everyone wants to address it regarding the NFL, but there are millions of kids playing sports that no one is talking about that we should be talking about a little bit more."
Twellman, a TV soccer analyst for ESPN and founder of the ThinkTaylor Foundation dedicated to educating young athletes on concussions, quit in his playing prime after an on-field blow to the head in 2008 that plagued him over the next seven years.
Dr. Dennis Cardone, co-director of New York University (NYU) Langone's Concussion Center and chief medical officer for the New York City Public Schools Athletic League, said women's sports produce a large share of concussions.
"Women's soccer is right up there with football, with wrestling. Women’s basketball, hockey and lacrosse are all serious risks for concussion," Cardone, who is also team physician for USA Wrestling and USA Fencing, told Reuters.
Earlier this month, retired U.S. national team soccer player Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning goal at the 1999 Women's World Cup, announced she would donate her brain posthumously to researchers studying the impact of concussions.
Over a third of 2,322 concussion patients at NYU's center the last three years were sports related. Forty-seven percent of the cases were pediatric (under 18) and women's sports accounted for 39 percent of adult sports injuries treated.
In adults, cycling topped the list (14 percent) followed by soccer (11), basketball (8), skiing (7), and 6 percent each for football and ice hockey.
Among younger patients, soccer led at 23 percent followed by football (14 percent), basketball (12) and ice hockey (9).
Both Twellman and Cardone, who participated in a recent panel on concussions at NYU Medical Center, say education is a key to protecting athletes.
Twellman's foundation runs educational programs to inform youth players, parents and coaches how to recognize concussions.
"Economically, it’s difficult to have a certified specialist on the sideline," Twellman said. "Education at all levels is important because all it takes is another set of eyes, another set of ears.
"Too many parents are relying on one coach to observe everything and it’s impossible. The concussed athlete doesn’t know what’s going on, so you need someone else there."
'LOSE YOUR CAREER'
Twellman learned that lesson the hard way.
"I had two real bad concussions, and the last one ended my career," he said.
The 2005 MLS MVP and five-time All-Star with the New England Revolution, Twellman scored 101 goals in 174 matches over eight seasons but in 2008 came his second 'bad' concussion.
"It was as if I was in a horrible car accident. The goalkeeper punched me in the head," he said. "It’s been a grind and a process to try and get back to full health.
"At age 28 to lose your career at just the start of your prime, you go through all of those emotions and on top of it you feel like absolute dog crap," added Twellman, who experienced the gamut of symptoms.
"Whether it’s nausea, dizziness, vertigo, double vision, migraines. I had all of them at some point."
Cardone said the concussion center has been researching both the diagnosis and treatment of concussions, including rehabbing with light aerobic activities and other therapies.
"Before it was cognitive rest, physical rest and that was the treatment," Cardone said. "In the past two, three years studies have said maybe we could affect duration and the course of a concussion with some interventions."
Cardone said multi-prong approaches use physical therapies, speech and auditory therapy and the testing of eye movements.
"Fifty percent of brain function, or more, is exhibited through eyes, movement and vision," said Cardone, who said parents could be shown how to administer eye tests.
A big concern in youth soccer surrounds the act of heading the ball, and the U.S. Soccer Federation has advised that players 10 and younger not be exposed to it, and players up to 13 only practice it and not head the ball in games.
"There is a lot of jostling and a lot of head impact. Most of the concussions are from hitting your head against an opposing player when going for a header," said Cardone.
Neither Cardone nor Twellman wants to discourage youth from taking up sports.
"I think it’s important that youth sports addresses it, doesn’t scare people, doesn’t take people away from the sport but adjusts rules accordingly," said Twellman.
Said Cardone: "I think we’ll make them safer."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)