The first, during a high school soccer game her senior year in 2013, happened when she went up for a ball and collided with another player. The next two happened during college play. The fourth at her job at a local soccer center, where she was hit by a ball as she stood by the sideline.
“It literally felt like someone was squeezing my brain,” said Brodka, an East Rutherford native. “By the second time, I just knew it was a concussion.”
Since her injuries, the avid soccer player has become sensitive to light, which forces her to wear sunglasses often. She suffers headaches — so much so that she got a Daith piercing, an alternative treatment that she believes helped her migraines lessen. She is also convinced she developed a stutter as a result of her injuries.
Traumatic brain injuries like concussions, long associated with sports like American football or boxing, are often overlooked in the “beautiful game.” However, recent studies have shown concussions are a growing concern in youth sports, especially among girls. A 2017 study by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons found that high school girls have a significantly higher concussion rate than boys, with female soccer players suffering the most concussions — even compared to football players.
The reasons for that are unclear: doctors say girls’ neck muscles are less developed than their male peers, thus making them more vulnerable to concussions. Some experts say there simply isn’t enough evidence to say why differences may exist. Regardless of biology, brain injuries in children, whose brains are still developing, are concerning.
That’s why legislatures have called for more research at the youth level, and the rules in the game have changed. In New Jersey, a bill was introduced in the spring to develop a registry to monitor head injuries among high school athletes. In 2015, U.S. Soccer, the governing body of all soccer in the country, went as far as recommending that heading be banned for certain age groups.
Despite efforts by those close to youth sports to raise awareness of concussions, especially in soccer, the problem at the highest level of competitive play is evident.
In recent years, safety advocates and concussion experts have pushed for initiatives to make soccer safer. The first step has been to educate coaches, trainers and players.
Felicia Gliksman, a pediatric neurologist at Hackensack University Medical Center, has trained school personnel, athletic directors and even Red Bulls Youth Soccer coaches in concussion management. She said that among athletes who come to her with concussions, most of her female patients are soccer players, and most male patients play football.
For young athletes, knowing the risks and signs, and being taught proper techniques to prevent concussions are key, she said.
“They need to be told that it’s not cool to stay in the game. It’s better to sit one game out, than the rest of the season,” Gliksman said. “Even if it is a little ding, you should stay out of the game and get evaluated.”
In 2017, an estimated 2.5 million high school students reported having at least one concussion related to sports or physical activity, and an estimated 1.0 million students reported having two or more concussions during the same time frame, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2001 to 2012, the rate of trips to the emergency department for the sports-related injury more than doubled among children, ages 19 and younger, according to the CDC.