As the popularity of soccer grows among children, doctors and researchers say the dangers of concussions need to be taken more seriously in the sport.

When researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto reviewed the evidence on concussions in soccer from hits to the head from other players' heads, shoulders or the field this winter, they found a higher incidence of concussions among females than males playing the world's most popular sport.

Doctors warn that heading — purposely using the head to control and hit the ball — is a unique aspect of the beautiful game that needs more attention.  

Heading the ball isn’t necessarily going to cause an overt concussion with symptoms, but the accumulation of those impacts over time could cause difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory, said study co-author Monica Maher, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, and a former soccer goalkeeper.

Maher doesn't want people to stop playing soccer or stop heading the ball. She does suggest limits on head exposure in younger children and padding on goal posts to prevent injury to the youngest players.

Soccer girls

Charlotte Gerard , 12, and Rachel Meilikhan, 13, are learning how to play soccer more safely. (CBC)

​Dr. David Robinson, a sports medicine physician at McMaster University in Hamilton, sees 10 to 15 concussions a week at the clinic, including many related to soccer.

"It's not a stretch to think that these chronic subconcussive blows may be softening the brain, injuring the brain over time," Robinson said.

He calls it a step forward that balls are becoming lighter for young people. He reminds parents and coaches that if a concussion is suspected, it's best to remove an athlete from play.

As for the differences in injury rates between males and females, Maher pointed to a few potential explanations:

  • Biochemical differences such as hormones.
  • Females' smaller and less strong neck muscles to brace on impact when heading.
  • Underreporting in males.

Robinson suggests female soccer players do simple neck exercises at home for strengthening and injury prevention.

With files from CBC's Marijka Hurko