Over the next few weeks, about 8 million kids nationwide will dig their shinguards out of the closet, lace up their cleats and hit the soccer field.
And, as any parent knows, bumps and bruises aren't far behind.
"Sports are sports and kids get injured," says Dr. Peter Sturm, chief of orthopedics at Shriners Children's Hospital in Chicago. "Usually it's not serious, but it's not unreasonable for parents to expect that there are going to be bumps and bruises."
Soccer is the nation's fastest-growing sport, and recent data suggests that its injury rates are rising. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study recently that warned of growing rates of knee and ankle injuries, as well as some alarming data on concussions.
While soccer is not a high-contact sport like football, hockey or lacrosse, it comes with its own set of common injuries, says Chris Karabatsis, director of coaching for the Darien Dynamos, a soccer club in the western suburbs.
"Soccer is all about technique," says Karabatsis, who played professionally in Europe for 14 years. "If you have good technique, you'll usually be fine. Bad technique, you get injured."
So all the Dynamo teams spend at least 15 minutes every practice on strength and balance training, improving their core strength and learning the right ways to push off and land.
Karabatsis says his teams pay particular attention to preventing knee injuries, which the recent study found are rising quickly, especially among high-level female athletes.
Girls tend to suffer more knee injuries, while ankle injuries are more common among boys, the AAP's study found. Concussions are rising for both groups, a particular cause for concern given the new research emerging among professional athletes about the long-term effects of concussions, which include brain damage, premature dementia and loss of some motor skills.
"If kids are complaining about headaches or blurry vision, they really need to be examined by somebody who knows what to look for," Sturm says. "Go to the emergency room, see your pediatrician, see a neurologist, but don't mess around with concussions."
Heading the ball, though it may look painful, is not dangerous, the study found. Karabatsis spends a lot of time teaching his older players how to properly head the ball to avoid facial injuries.
"If it hurt, nobody would do it," he says. "It's a big part of the game, so learning how to do it right is important."
Of course, the vast majority of injuries are far less serious-kicked shins, skinned knees, mild sprains and strains. In those cases, Sturm says, common sense goes a long way.
Minor bumps and bruises should clear up within a week or two, and laying low is the best medicine.
"We'll never let any player back until the doctor says they're 100 percent," Karabatsis says. "I'd rather not have them for a week than not have them for the rest of the season."
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