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Soccer 'heading' may cause brain damage
November 29th, 2011
12:01 AM ET

Soccer 'heading' may cause brain damage

Heading the soccer ball too frequently may cause damage to the brain, according to new research.

In smaller numbers, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. It’s when the number of headers reaches about 1,300 per year that the brain may begin to suffer traumatic brain damage.

Numbers that high may seem excessive, but not for players regularly honing their skills on the field through practice.

“Practice turns out to be a much bigger source of exposure than actual games,” says Dr. Michael Lipton, the lead study author and Director of Radiology Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Some people were reporting heading 5,000 times a year.”

Lipton’s team of researchers recruited 39 soccer players from amateur leagues, men in their late twenties and early thirties who play regularly but not professionally; many of whom have been playing for most of their lives.

Players filled out a questionnaire meant to help them estimate the number of headers they make each year. When researchers compared the brain scans of players reporting lower numbers of headers to players reporting higher numbers, there were distinct differences between the two group’s brains.

“Excessive heading definitely seems to be associated with impairment of memory and processing speed,” says Lipton. “Soccer may not be as benign as people thought it was.”

The study uses diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a type of magnetic resonance (MR), which measures the movement of water molecules in the brain’s white matter. In healthy brains, the water molecules move in a uniform direction through the white matter, but in injured brains, they move less uniformly, and more randomly.

Heading is already the most dangerous part of soccer in terms of head injuries, says Dr. Robert Cantu, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. When heading the ball, players often hit other players, causing concussions.

However, Dr. Lipton’s study did ask players about their concussive history, both on and off the field, and the small study’s results show altered brain images from routine heading, not from any increased rate of diagnosed concussions.

“If there is a chronic injury due to this kind of activity, it’s not something that’s going to jump out on the radar,” says Lipton, “it’s very possible that it’s something that people may not even really recognize, even though we could pick it up by testing for it.”

The regions of the brain responsible for executive functions like attention, memory, and planning, as well as visual and spatial reasoning all showed signs of damage due to heading.

Whether children and young adults are more vulnerable to the effects of heading is unclear, and those groups should be researched directly, says Lipton.

The findings were presented Tuesday at a Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) annual meeting.


soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. Sid

    sounds like a simple peak G-load problem – add a little padding to the balls and/or make the players wear thin helmets. I don't mean full (US) football ones, more like bike helmets – just enough to reduce the peak Gs. reduce the "A" & you reduce the "F" (assuming constant "M") while still netting the same delta-"V" (think tennis racket hitting tennis ball vs baseball/bat) – problem solved! that'll be $10M, please...

    November 29, 2011 at 08:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Allie

      The problem is the shearing injury that the brain incurs from the impact. Football helmets don't even really protect against that. They help with skull fractures, but concussions are still very prevalent. I wish that helmets fixed the problem, but research done by the folks in Pittsburgh and Dr. Collins, etc. do not show that this is a huge help. Teaching kids the proper technique helps, as does reducing the amount of hits altogether. It is a risk you take when you play the sport (or any) for that matter.

      November 29, 2011 at 08:34 | Report abuse |
    • James

      You are assuming a purely elastic collision which probably isn't a fair assumption if you are adding padding to something.

      November 29, 2011 at 08:56 | Report abuse |
    • hatesidiots

      BTW, how can the additional padding reduce the "A", when you just increased the "M"- which makes the "(assuming constant "M")" a wrong assumption?

      November 29, 2011 at 11:43 | Report abuse |
    • Sid

      my, aren't you clever... yes, adding padding to an existing ball introduces non-zero mass – WOW! what an insight... I suppose the next thing you'll point out is that the helmet would be <100% efficient...

      @James – your point is valid but mostly solvable (primarily a materials ?). I realize you'd probably never be able to exactly replicate the rebound of an existing ball on a human skull but I bet you could get pretty darn close & as long as everyone's playing w/the same ball/helmet why would it matter?

      I admit I'm not a materials/loads engineer myself but there are plenty of them capable of solving this problem – as luck would have it I sit next to one whose kids play soccer... just curious but specs aside are any of you saying that this ISN'T a peak G problem and/or that we don't have the technology (materials and/or knowledge of physics/biology) to solve it? I don't see how this is fundamentally different (other than magnitude) from what NASCAR went through after Dale Earnhart's death – human brains don't like G loads so the more you can reduce acceleration the fewer brain injuries you're going to have. it ain't rocket surgery...

      November 29, 2011 at 13:28 | Report abuse |
    • Bwag174

      -Hates Idiots

      I agree to sid's sugesstion, or simply not allowing it for high school and lower games. As for your coment on inceasing the "M". (Force=Mass times Acceleration) you aren't increasing the Mass of the ball from adding head protection. The way the helmet and ball could be redisgned could decrease the amount of force peak on the player at any given time. Of course there are draw backs in angling the ball during match play and shorter distances for kicks, but it does help the problem slightly. My final course of action would definatly be NOT heading the ball. Its better to hit your head off a carpeted floor than cement but stupid to do both.

      November 29, 2011 at 19:02 | Report abuse |
    • m15tertee

      I don't think bike helmets are thin enough or esthetically pleasing. The thin helmets will have to be made of 'breathable' materials, with perforated holes, but stiff enough to reduce the "F".

      November 30, 2011 at 19:25 | Report abuse |
  2. John

    Sample size (n=39) too small + memory recall of the number of headers in a year may be questionable + some of the players might have been playing longer than the others = some potential issues of the study. But it does seem probable that *headers* cause *head* problems...hmmmm.

    November 29, 2011 at 08:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. 12345

    water is wet.

    November 29, 2011 at 09:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Eurologist

    Firstly, 1,300 headers per year is something not even most professional soccer players in Europe experience – practice included. Something like several hundred is more realistic.

    Secondly, technique makes a lot of difference. The idea is that you forcefully move your head (many times heavier than the ball) in the intended direction. Doing that diminishes forces to the head to rather low levels. Show me soccer retirees who come even close to boxing or football type disabilities. There are none.

    November 29, 2011 at 09:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pizzahater

      Sir Bobby Charlton seems in very good health.

      November 29, 2011 at 10:41 | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      Jeff Astle:
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15917035

      November 29, 2011 at 11:41 | Report abuse |
    • john

      wahaha! nice rick! slap to the face! =))))

      November 30, 2011 at 02:18 | Report abuse |
  5. rolf born

    I played soccer for 53 years in many countries and back when the ball was made of leather and when it got wet became extremely heavy, everyone that I still talk to from those years doesn"t seem to have any problems. Nowadays the balls are waterproof and lighter and as with anything else how you strike the ball with your head has alot to do with it.

    November 29, 2011 at 10:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Supernova

    All sports have a notch of possible injury therefore this is a nonsense report. Soccer is no where close to american football both in risk and how intelligent you play soccer. Soccer is real football not handball. Gupta is comparing both games and that is where he is a far from correct. He could find better things to report on, his ideas would accrue more with boxing and UFC sports etc. He probably got paid from the NFL or NBA to make this shabby report.

    November 29, 2011 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rick

      The BBC is reporting the same thing:
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15917035
      Just because American football is more dangerous doesn't mean it's a good idea for coaches of school-age kids to have them head the ball over and over in practice. Gupta is just reporting the results of scientific studies; what's the point of ignoring the data?

      November 29, 2011 at 11:45 | Report abuse |
    • sc

      We can ignore the survey data because the people who took them were exaggerating. 32 "Men in their late twenties and early thirties who play regularly but not professionally" probably average 1300 headers per year (and whoever said 5000, is outright lying). Also the type of headers matter because a header for a 5 yard pass is quite different compared to a header to score or for clearance.

      Helmets? Good try lady. Oh and good try NBA

      November 29, 2011 at 20:46 | Report abuse |
  7. Woody1150

    Heading the ball 5,000 times in a year. That's overly excessive. Not sure why anyone would need to do that. Playing through high school and college there would be practice but there wasn't even enough practice or games to head the ball that much. I'm sure at the professional level they don't either. Hell, at the pro level, it's probably like most other pro sports they probably don't even practice that hard.

    November 29, 2011 at 12:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. DUI Lawyer Miami Florida

    Ooh my GOD, really soccer heading can cause brain damage, that's very shocking news and this problem could be solved by making light soccer balls, and then all will be ok.

    DUI Lawyer Miami Fl

    November 29, 2011 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Tom

    I played soccer twice a week, year round, from the age of 25 to 35, and I can tell you I never came close to heading 1000 balls in any given year. Even as a relatively tall player, I maybe saw 2 headers a week...I believe that is 104 a year if my brain is still capable of multiplying numbers 🙂 In contrast, I probably averaged 20 helmut to helmut hits in a typical football practice when I was in Jr. High.

    November 29, 2011 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Tom

    It is worth pointing out that soccer is very hard on the legs, especially the knees and ankles, but I don't see brain injury as a serious risk.

    November 29, 2011 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. abc123

    This study is sponsored by the NBA in hope to bring the fans back after the lock out. Too late.

    November 29, 2011 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Natch

    How is it, then, that the act which could give brain damage to the players, ends up making so many of the fans, worldwide, such brain damaged individuals?

    November 29, 2011 at 19:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. dot

    DUH!!!

    November 29, 2011 at 20:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sarah

      From experience from 6 concussions from soccer myself. Most of us would rather risk the injury then play with a helmet or have the material of the ball changed or restrict headers. Those would completely alter our game.

      November 29, 2011 at 21:09 | Report abuse |
  14. MashaSobaka

    Um..."new research?" Are you kidding? We've known this for quite some time. Okay, maybe only the people who actually play have known this for quite some time....

    November 29, 2011 at 21:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. mmi16

    Anytime you use the head is used as a weapon or tool by impacting something – the head is in jeaporday.

    November 30, 2011 at 04:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Shadow

    Soon a report with science behind it will come out saying that people who carry pales on their head in villages in Africa and South America cause head injuries too. Good luck in trying to change people's ideals with shabby findings that perhaps young students who are trying to make an impact in their first science project in the world are doing.

    November 30, 2011 at 11:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. TTBCHEER513

    This is very true; i played soccer before but i could never head bunt the ball now i'm glad i couldn't and iwill never try !!!

    November 30, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. larry5

    If you don't head you won't be on the team. If you want to stop heading because of brain damage pass a rule.

    December 1, 2011 at 05:32 | Report abuse | Reply
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