A few months ago, we reported on one of our studies that examined recent research on artificial turf injuries. This remains a hot topic of discussion among coaches, players and parents. Is there greater risk of injury when playing and training on artificial turf? Given the immediate and long-term impacts injuries like an ACL tear have on the player, it’s not surprising that the soccer community wants a clear answer to this question. Dr. Michael Meyers of Idaho State University recently published a fascinating and in-depth study comparing match-related injuries in women’s college soccer. It provides a wealth of detailed information on the debate between artificial turf and grass. In Part 1 of this two-part analysis, we focus on playing surface and the risk of injury. In Part 2, we’ll examine the data more closely and look into the circumstances that lead to injuries in women’s college soccer.
The study followed 13 NCAA Division I women’s soccer teams over a 5-year period. The teams were selected based on their availability to play matches on grass and turf as well as their competitive level. Athletic trainers at each university were asked to record and describe all injuries that occurred during regular season matches played on FieldTurf and natural grass. They recorded information such as the type, location and severity of the injury, game situations, playing position as well as a host of other variables. It is important to note that in this study (as in others), an injury is defined as an acute trauma that resulted in a player missing all or part of a match or training session. Thus, chronic conditions such as overuse or minor injuries like skin abrasions are not generally considered by this definition.
In all, the 13 teams played 797 matches, 355 (45%) on FieldTurf and 442 (55%) on grass. The athletic trainers noted a total of 693 injuries (slightly less than 9 injuries per 10 matches). When looking at all injuries combined, the injury rate was nearly 20% lower for matches played on artificial turf than on grass (7.7 versus 9.5 injuries per 10 matches).
As for specific injury locations, the figure shows injuries grouped by body part and tissue type (click to enlarge). In the left panel, there tended to be more ankle and knee injuries on grass than on turf, but this difference was not statistically significant. There were however, statistically greater rates of head and shoulder injury on grass than turf (marked by the asterisk on the figure). The results also showed greater muscle injuries, ligament sprains and contusions (bruises) on turf.
There were no differences in rate of concussions on the two surfaces. However, a greater number of post traumatic headaches were reported on grass. Specific knee injuries were also similar on the two surfaces. This includes anterior cruciate ligament as well as medial and lateral collateral ligament injuries.
The study found no key differences in the mechanisms of injuries sustained on turf and grass. This includes player-to-player, player-to-surface and player-to-ball contact injuries as well as shoe-to-surface contact and non-contact injuries.
There were several interesting findings about various field conditions. Significantly fewer injuries occurred on older FieldTurf fields (≥8 years old) compared to older grass fields. The author of the study suggests that this may be due to the consistent surface of artificial turf compared with damage to older grass fields as the season progresses. The injury rate for matches played in the heat (≥70°F) was also lower on Fieldturf than on grass. This is surprising given the concerns over heat and artificial turf. However, as the college season extends into the fall months and given that many matches are often played at night, field surface temperature during a game may not be excessively high.
Overall, for the vast majority of injuries examined, none occurred more frequently on turf than on grass. In fact, some specific injury types, the rates of injury were lower on the artificial surface. Based on these results of the study, the author concludes that artificial turf is a “practical alternative to natural grass when comparing injuries in collegiate women’s soccer.”
The results of this study compare favorably with the results of two previous studies on college soccer players. In 2007, researchers from the UK examined the NCAA Injury Surveillance System and concluded that there were no differences in the “incidence, severity, nature or cause of injuries sustained on new generation artificial turf and on grass.” This held for matches and training as well as men and women.
Given these three studies, it seems reasonable to suggest that artificial turf does not raise the risk of acute injury in female college players. If one Google’s artificial turf and injuries, a host of websites can be found that promote the notion that artificial turf is inherently dangerous, especially for women. However, the scientific data simply does not support this idea. It is doubtful that anyone is willing to go so far as to conclude turf is safer than grass. Add to that, many players prefer a well groomed grass pitch over artificial turf. Nevertheless, the research certainly indicates that as far as acute injuries go, players, coaches and parents can be confident that playing on turf does not raise the risk of injury.
Next up, a look at injury causes, match situations and playing position.