Soccer is one of the fastest-growing team sports in the United States, especially among youth. Boys and girls of all ages enjoy the sport, whether they're playing for school teams, clubs or just for fun. As with any sport, though, injuries can be part of the game.
"Kids are spending more time on the soccer field, so it makes sense that we're seeing an increase in injuries," says Dustin Loveland, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at the Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine. "You can't prevent all sports injuries, but you can take steps to help avoid them."
Here's a look at some of the most common soccer injuries and tips to reduce injury risk.
Bone fractures from soccer
One of the most common soccer injuries is a fracture, especially wrist fractures. In these cases, a waterproof cast is placed on the wrist and players can often return to play the same day. If surgery is required, the recovery time can be six weeks or more depending on the severity of the fracture.
"Growing bones are pretty soft, and I'll see a goalie who broke a wrist just by stopping the ball without even falling down," Dr. Loveland says. "Usually, these are small fractures that don't displace the bone, so they don't need surgery."
Other common soccer fractures include broken ankles and fractured collarbones. Unlike wrist fractures, these injuries usually keep players out for an extended period of time until the bones are completely healed.
Common sprains and strains in soccer
Sprains and strains happen in most sports, and ankles are particularly at risk in soccer. The ankles can be especially vulnerable to injury when a player suddenly changes direction or steps on another player's foot. Soccer players also may sprain or strain muscles or ligaments in their feet, knees, hamstrings and upper body.
Mild sprains and strains usually can be treated at home with the PRICE formula:
- Protect the injured area with a brace or sling, if necessary.
- Rest the injured area.
- Ice the injury for 20 minutes at a time. Do not apply the ice directly to the skin.
- Compress the injured area with a wrap.
- Elevate the injured area above the heart, if possible.
Soft tissue injuries can take a few weeks to two months to heal. If the injured area remains very swollen, looks deformed or worsens over the next few days, consult a sports medicine physician.
Knee injuries from soccer
Soccer knee injuries range from stress and inflammation of the soft tissues around the kneecap to more serious anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) sprains or tears, which often happen when the knee is twisted or hyperextended.
"ACL tears are much more common in girls than boys, possibly because girls tend to have more laxity," explains Dr. Loveland. "These players will need surgery and could miss up to a year of soccer."
Once an athlete has injured one ACL, they are more likely to reinjure it or tear the other ACL, so it's important to take time for a full recovery and other steps to prevent ACL injuries.
A 2019 study found that girls who play soccer have nearly the same risk for concussions as boys who play football. One contributing factor is that soccer tends to be played year-round, especially by female athletes. These players have more exposure to competitive soccer and are playing for longer durations, which can influence concussion incidences.
"It's not uncommon for a high school and club soccer player to go to multiple practices per day, which means that athlete is getting double the exposure and duration," explains Scott Burkhart, Psy.D., Neuropsychologist and Concussion Program Director at Children's Health Andrews Institute. "Just like overuse and sports specialization can cause lower extremity injuries in soccer, we see an increase in all injuries, including concussion, especially in female players."
Most soccer head injuries and concussions occur because soccer involves a lot of player-to-player contact. Head-to-ground or limb-to-head contact are the primary sources of soccer concussions. Heading the ball is not a major cause of concussion in soccer, though this action may exacerbate or trigger an existing concussion.
Concussions, like any sports injury, are not 100% preventable. In recent years, concussion headbands have risen in popularity. While this headgear may help prevent skull fractures, they cannot fully prevent a concussion. The most important thing soccer players, parents and coaches can do to keep athletes safe is to quickly recognize symptoms of a concussion and seek care from a concussion specialist. While concussions resulting in loss of consciousness are more apparent, it can be difficult for players to recognize concussions when they occur from less dramatic or repeated bumps to the head.
Soccer players should tell coaches and parents immediately if they experience any of the following concussion symptoms:
- Fogginess or memory difficulty
- Changes to vision or balance
- Increased fatigue
Seeing a concussion specialist within 24-48 hours of injury can help athletes recover quicker and more safely from a concussion.
How can athletes prevent soccer injuries?
While there is no way to prevent all soccer injuries, athletes can take steps to help prepare their bodies for play and reduce injury risk, such as warming up muscles, monitoring nutrition intake, hydrating, cross-training and watching for early signs of injury.
- Warm up: Cold muscles and ligaments are more prone to injury, so make sure to warm up before play with cardio and stretching.
- Fuel adequately: Athletes should focus on proper nutrition and staying hydrated. Even mild dehydration can affect performance and raise the risk of injury.
- Cross-train: Incorporate cross-training off the soccer field. Off-season strength training and conditioning can help build muscles and protect against injury.
- Listen to your body: Be aware of signs of fatigue, pain or discomfort. Athletes should communicate with coaches or a sports medicine professional about any injury symptoms.
The only pediatric institute of its kind in Texas, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our wide range of services available to help athletes stay healthy and improve their game.