Soccer play can lead to more than a headache
As the soccer ball sailed toward the goal post, 15-year-old Rebekah Jolly rose up and batted it away with the left side of her head. The home-schooled high school freshman had done this many times before. But something was different this time.
“My ear was ringing and I had a headache,” recalls Jolly, a midfielder for the Albion Hurricanes in West Houston who first started kicking a soccer ball as an 8-year-old.
Jolly didn’t know it at the time but she had a type of traumatic brain injury known as a concussion. Each year, there are estimated to be more than one million sports-related concussions in the United States.
“The athletic trainer gave me an eye tracking test and a balance test,” says Jolly, who suffered the injury on Nov. 3, 2012, and was wearing protective headgear at the time. “Something was off.”
Rebekah’s mother, Fran, who was at the game and noted that soccer balls can travel as fast as a speeding car, says, “I knew something was up.”
Jolly was referred to concussion specialist Summer Ott, Psy.D., who is on the faculty at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School and is the director of the Sports Concussion Program at the Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute.
Football and hockey are the high-impact sports that typically come to mind when someone mentions a concussion, but concussions happen during soccer as well, Ott says.
“Getting a concussion while heading the ball is somewhat unusual,” she says. “Typically, they occur when players bump heads while going for a ball or when a player takes a hard fall.”
When explaining a traumatic brain injury to a patient, Ott often uses the analogy of an egg. “Imagine your head is an egg and your brain is the yolk inside. When your head is jarred, your brain can move. This can affect its function.”
The warning signs of a concussion are headaches, dizziness and a feeling of fogginess (see below). Athletes will sometimes ignore these symptoms for fear of being taken out of the game or because they are so focused they don’t recognize the symptoms.
A 25-minute, computerized test that measures the ability to process information, attention span, working memory and reaction time confirmed that Rebekah had a concussion. It’s called an ImPACT test, which is short for Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing.
In Jolly’s case, and that of many others with concussions, the treatment is rest. For Jolly, that meant two weeks with limited television, smartphone and texting.
“The idea is to give their brains time to heal by reducing mental activity,” says Ott.
That is no easy task for students like Jolly, who with each passing day fall behind in their coursework. “I went into my dad’s office and just sat there,” she says.
“This was very hard for Rebekah,” Ott says. “She is a very intense young woman and wanted to resume playing as soon as possible.”.
Jolly was cleared for soccer after her symptoms resolved and after retaking the test and passing it. She is back playing in Albion and is now on the lookout for the warning signs of a concussion.
In fact, she recently checked herself out of a tournament after she took a hard fall in the first of two games and felt a little dizzy. “The concussion was a bad enough experience that Rebekah wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again,” says Fran Jolly.
Ott adds, “It turned out she didn’t have anything wrong with her but that was the right thing to do.”
Serious problems can occur if someone with a concussion has another before the brain has had a chance to heal.
That is why it is recommended that athletes get a baseline cognitive test at the beginning of a season so doctors have a way to measure any changes in ability. “This way we have something to compare to the player’s current status,” Ott says.
Ott was one of the catalysts behind Texas House Bill 2038 that established proper management and return to play guidelines for school-aged athletes who have had a concussion. She is a neuropsychology consultant for the Houston Texans, the Houston Aeros and the University of Houston Cougars.
The bottom line, according to Ott, is that athletes as well as their parents and coaches need to be on the lookout for the warning signs of a concussion.
For more information on the Sports Concussion Program, call 713-704-9647 or visit its website.