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SALT LAKE CITY — When you think of concussions, quite often the first sport that comes to mind is football. But what if we told you girls soccer is the second-leading cause of concussions when it comes to team sports in Utah? What's more surprising is the way these concussions occur.
Girls soccer can be a very physical sport. There's pushing, shoving, and sometimes even hair-pulling.
But if you're talking serious injuries, these athletes definitely see their fair share. Hilcrest High School junior Kaitlin Castleberry says she's had knee surgery, a broken arm, sprained ankles, cracked ribs and black eyes. But her most dangerous injury came from a blow to the head.
"It was a drop-kick. I was, like, 10 and headed in from mid-field," Castleberry remembered.
Castleberry has been playing soccer since the first grade. Believe it or not, it was a black and white rubber ball to the head that triggered her first concussion.
"My tongue swelled up, and I just had to go down," Castleberry said.
An injury like Catleberry's doesn't surprise Dr. Anne Russo, a clinical neuropsychologist at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital (TOSH) in Murray. Depending on the player, she says a good kick will send the ball flying between 30 and 40 miles per hour. And while the ball only weighs about 16 ounces, it's hitting heads with 175 pounds of force on average.
For some, it happens several times per game.
"It can potentially cause a lot of damage; and again, it's an unprotected head," Russo reminded. "Your neck may or may not be strong enough to absorb all that shock. It probably isn't."
In fact, that "neck strength" may be the primary reason girls get more concussions playing soccer. Boys necks are typically stronger, and the force isn't as traumatic.
But regardless of gender, the effects of a concussion are often the same. If the concussions are repeated, on doctor's orders the athlete might be out of the sport they love forever.
"Neck strength" may be the primary reason girls get more concussions playing soccer. Boys necks are typically stronger, and the force isn't as traumatic.
Unfortunately, part of the problem for young athletes like Castleberry is their sport often defines who they believe they are. And many times, it's tough to see the big picture.
Castleberry's last concussion, in the middle of a playoff game, is a prime example. "There was only five minutes left and I wanted to letter, so I just stayed in," she said.
It was a decision Castleberry said she doesn't regret. "I kind of do, because I got a concussion and aggravated it," she said. "But I lettered, and that's the one thing I wanted to do."
But Castleberry did pay the price. Her memory suffered, her grades suffered, and ultimately her personality suffered.
"She totally shut us out," said Katlin's mom, Vanet Castleberry. "There were bits of anger — actually a lot of anger."
At that point, with the help of family and doctors, Kaitlin made the decision to quit the sport she so desperately loves. Now she's says she's thinking more clearly, hoping the short-term effects of her concussions don't become long-term problems.
"I have different goals now, like going to college, getting good grades, and even hanging out with friends. That was difficult when I had a concussion," Kaitlin said.
When it comes to girls versus boys, studies show girls are reporting nearly twice as many concussions as boys in the sports they both play, like soccer, basketball and baseball.
Again, one reason given by some doctors has to do with anatomy, saying most girls have smaller heads and weaker necks than boys. And some studies show girls are more likely to report a head injury than the boys.