Heading a soccer ball may be bad for the brain
Scientists are looking at microscopic levels in the brain and finding damage from smaller blows to the head, or subconcussive hits.
June 11th, 2013
10:53 AM ET

Heading a soccer ball may be bad for the brain

When compared to the bone-jarring crash between two football helmets, heading a soccer ball might seem almost innocuous. But those seemingly mild hits to a soccer player's head may damage the brain at a deep, molecular level, according to a new study.

"It's entirely possible that the innumerable subconcussive hits that those players have may really be a culprit (for brain injury) as well," said Dr. Michael Lipton, associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and the study's lead author.

The theory gaining ground among many concussion experts is that the unfortunately-named 'subconcussive' hits - less-forceful hits that don't cause an overt concussion - when they accumulate over time, may prove to be more damaging than their more flamboyant cousins.

That means seemingly subtle hits - jostling the brain by bouncing a ball off of it - when they happen over and over again, could be just as bad as a more jarring hit.

"Long-term damage may have less to do with the number of diagnosed concussions and perhaps more do to with the number of subconcussive impacts to the head," said Kevin Guskiewicz, the chair of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the study.

Lipton and colleagues studied 37 young, healthy, amateur soccer players who headed the ball between as few as 32 and as many as 5,400 times during the preceding 10-month season.

Players filled out a questionnaire to gauge the number of times they headed the ball the previous year; they also underwent tests of their attention and memory, and had their brains scanned.

The scans revealed an association between heading and damage to white matter (brain tissue that helps to convey signals across brain regions), but with a caveat.

In similar studies of subconcussive impact, the association tends to be: The more hits to the head, the more damage to the brain. Basically, "...the more you head the ball, the worse cognition gets," said Lipton. "But we found that's not the case."

In Lipton's study, published Tuesday in the journal Radiology, players had to reach a certain number of headers before the brain scan reflected damage. After that threshold was reached, brain function dropped precipitously.

It took between 900 and 1,500 headers for abnormalities to be discernible on brain scans. But the first obvious indication of a problem outside the brain occurred around 1,800 headers, when players in the small sample had measurable problems with memory tests.

The suggestion is that the brain's intrinsic ability to repair itself works, to a point. After that point, however, the brain cannot keep pace and becomes overwhelmed.

"That tells us that pathological change happens at a lower level than clinical manifestation of problems," said Lipton.

In short, there is a tipping point - and that point is different for everyone.

We are years away from knowing whether - like pitching limits to protect young baseball players' elbows and shoulders - we are on the cusp of heading limits for soccer players.

And in this study, Guskiewicz points out that we do not know how the players' previous history of subconcussive hits may have affected the outcome of their brain scans in this study.

"This one study should not place a cloud over the sport of soccer," said Guskiewicz. "This is an interesting finding, but there is much more to be learned about this."

And the usual caveats apply to this small study: A larger study group will give more nuance and clarity to the still-murky issue of long-term damage conferred by subconcussive hits.

Lipton and his colleagues are in the midst of recruiting hundreds of soccer players for that study, to take an even closer look at heading, brain changes, even the role of genetics.

"We are absolutely not making any recommendations that people should lock to some specific threshold (for heading)," said Lipton. "We don't know yet."

soundoff (98 Responses)


    June 11, 2013 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Suz

      you're an idiot.

      June 11, 2013 at 16:10 | Report abuse |
    • Suz is cry baby

      are you mad?

      June 11, 2013 at 20:09 | Report abuse |
    • Balls of Steel

      Hit the ball with your too many times?

      June 11, 2013 at 20:56 | Report abuse |
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      June 19, 2013 at 21:39 | Report abuse |
  2. Russ

    What a stupid article, and they end it with "We don't know yet." Amazing.

    June 11, 2013 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JSB

      Every study always concludes with a line that suggests more study is needed. If no more study is needed then no more money can be made by those conducting the studies.

      June 11, 2013 at 16:10 | Report abuse |
    • StPeteRickster

      Actually, admitting they don't have all the answers is what separates Science from Religion.

      Knowing what you do NOT know is the beginning of wisdom.....

      June 11, 2013 at 17:30 | Report abuse |
    • Elexsor

      @StPeteRickster: Amen. 😛 See what I did there. lol

      June 11, 2013 at 18:03 | Report abuse |
    • Sglide

      And just think, they get paid to write this useless dribble.

      June 11, 2013 at 18:05 | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      This comment shows you know little about the most basic aspects of how science works. One study should NEVER be viewed as meaningful in itself. Science proceeds by repeating studies to confirm and extend them. It ALWAYS takes numerous studies, by multiple researchers, over many years, before meaningful conclusions can be drawn. And ALL scientific conclusions must be, by definition (science) tentative. Nothing is ever proven in science, everything is always subject to further study and clarification. These things are a big part of why science is the most valuable and important human discipline of all time. In only the last few hundred years, science has added more to our understanding of the world, and changed the human condition, more than all other human endeavors combined throughout all of human history.

      June 11, 2013 at 19:43 | Report abuse |
    • Booster

      Yes, way too stupid an article to write. This is a universal sport played around the world and just NOW they're saying this?!?! They just had nothing better to write about. I guess the NFL players won't hurt their brains right? They chose to write this article not for football, but for soccer?????

      June 11, 2013 at 20:36 | Report abuse |
  3. video

    you don't say.

    June 11, 2013 at 15:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SokrMom

      Yeah, who'da thunk?!

      June 11, 2013 at 20:42 | Report abuse |
  4. nick

    when I first played in the 1970s, the balls were leather and would become much heavier in wet weather – I always worried about heading them with the increased weight – in theory, you are supposed to always make contact at the top of the forhead, but that doesn't always happen – scary report but I am 57 and still have my faculties so far!

    June 11, 2013 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • fuhq nick

      you sure, playboy?

      June 11, 2013 at 15:59 | Report abuse |
  5. H. F.

    "Soccer Balls Can Hurt Your Brain" – not as much as this useless story does . . .

    June 11, 2013 at 16:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Nazorine Ulysse

      Thank you for saying because I was wondering if missed something after reading the article.

      June 11, 2013 at 22:09 | Report abuse |
    • liz

      NOT a stupid article. There is more and more conversation about this in the soccer teams and with the education about brain trauma. Especially for young players. The brain is still forming and growing and repeated hits on the head that jar the brain are not good for the brain. How can you argue with that? You think it's good? Doesn't matter? Kids that play all through grade school, year round now, and high school, take hundreds of hits in that time. Have you ever been hit in the head with a soccer ball? They are surprisingly hard and it hurts – – don't believe the hype that it doesn't hurt if you do it right. Really? Then perhaps your head is numbed from all the hits. And your brain doesn't know if it hurt you or not. The brain is rattled every single time. Tell me again why that isn't bad ? Still got your faculties – – lucky you. But your head isn't meant to be a bat. You were given the hard skull to protect your brain. NOT for batting around soccer balls.

      June 12, 2013 at 17:36 | Report abuse |
  6. mike

    I used to play soccer pretty often, and I swear that hard headers (especially off goal kicks) began making me a bit woozy. I do think they take their toll, and it got to the point where I played more off of my chest unless I had no other choice.

    June 11, 2013 at 16:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JT

      It doesn't help when the person your marking decides to throw an elbow in your back when you go for that header on the goal kick – and the elbow causes you to end up taking the header with either your face or the top of your head (hurts worse than the face).

      June 12, 2013 at 16:06 | Report abuse |
  7. JosefK

    you don't hear about a lot of ex-soccer players that have traumatic brain injuries.

    June 11, 2013 at 16:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. wassamattayou

    It is all how how you head the ball. Americans usually cannot do it properly.

    June 11, 2013 at 16:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Bob

    there was also a study in Italy that many soccer palyers were diagnosed with ALS (lou Gehrigs Disease)...i'm an ex-college soccer player and am scared to death hearing this stuff..

    June 11, 2013 at 17:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. JFCanton

    Why is anyone heading the ball 1000x in a season? Learn to do it correctly and then don't do it unless you need to.

    Players often take headers off goal clearances, as someone refers to above, but it seems like the result is usually a tossup anyway-so why not let a ball in the middle of the field hit the ground?

    June 11, 2013 at 17:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Klmabcghi

      Apparently you don't know much about playing the game. The header is an extremely useful tool in goal scoring (watch any soccer highhlight show). Any offensive player who wants to advance spends many hours in a season practicing headers. Just juggling a ball on your head to hepl learn ball control can add hundreds of hits, albeit minor. Goal clearances, as you put it, are probably the hardest hit to the head, but also the least common headers used in any game.

      June 11, 2013 at 22:37 | Report abuse |
    • JT

      I don't know, I was a marking back and I took several headers off goal kicks and punts every game. You have to use your head – if you don't, the ball is likely to bounce over you and give the attackers an advantage. If nobody's around you then you can trap it, but that's not likely on a 50-50 ball.

      Punts were the worst. If a keeper didn't know how to get any distance and basically hit it striaght up the ball was not only coming down harder, it was harder to gauge exactly where to position yourself.

      I remember a few teammates shying away from heading punts in practice and our coach took everyone aside and we practice heading punts (from straight up in the air) for the rest of the day. I think it made my brain hurt for good week.

      June 12, 2013 at 16:10 | Report abuse |
  11. cpc65

    Also, watching soccer hurts your brain.

    June 11, 2013 at 17:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. GE

    CNN hurts your brain also...

    June 11, 2013 at 17:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Elexsor

    Interesting study however they need to look at the impact on people from various geographic locations (worldly). In areas where they eat higher levels of fish with higher levels of omega-3s then I suspect that the number of headers required to show damage will be significantly higher than say a person from the US.

    June 11, 2013 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. REUBEN

    I have played Soccer for over 30 years!! I did not head the ball too much, because I was playing forward. But, that the brain gets damaged because of heading a soccer ball is total hog wash. There have been thousands of players who have played for their respective countries and international clubs. Name one player who had had an effect on their brain.
    COMPARE THAT TO FOOTBALL. This is a biased article, to bring a bad name to the most popular game in the World.

    June 11, 2013 at 18:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Franklin

      There are thousands of people who smoke and never get lung cancer. Does that mean smoking is safe?

      Anecdotes don't count. Science does.

      June 11, 2013 at 19:55 | Report abuse |
  15. Avi

    Really? I'm so shocked that hitting your head and effectively killing off neurons that cant regenerate is bad for you.

    June 11, 2013 at 18:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Primal 4 Life

    Oh for sobbing out loud just shut up all ready.

    June 11, 2013 at 18:27 | Report abuse | Reply
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    June 11, 2013 at 19:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Brenda

    This story broke years ago??

    June 11, 2013 at 19:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Tony Dunne

    I first heard the phrase " Soccer Mom " in the US, and after reading this article, I can only imagine the type of effect this will have on High School & College coaches, especially in the lower division, I expect the knee jerk reaction will be well, in keeping with hype this article will stir !

    No bear in mind that this is a small study and not a comparison to other contact sports, football mma boxing etc, also technique and the quality of the technique also a factor, although the study subjects supposedly were amateur players it does not state the proportion of gender !
    As soccer is still struggling to develop in this country, this type of article will add to the Soccer Mom Hype !

    Last I knew soccer players were very good athletes, ............ but in the US NASCAR is a sport !
    Oh well, budge over on the couch so we can all watch another extolling 200 laps !

    June 11, 2013 at 19:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Joe

    I always knew playing sports was bad for my health.

    June 11, 2013 at 19:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Brent

    So this is what is wrong with me. When I was a freshman in high school until a senior, out coach would punt the highest kicks with the soccer ball over half the field and require us to head them to "toughen" us up. We must have headed 30+ balls like this every practice.

    On a positive note, we would practice diving headers in the mud when it rained, that was a blast!

    June 11, 2013 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JT

      same here. we got to use a slip and slide for diving headers, it was quite fun (though it really didn't translate in game when you went to dive and stuck to the turf 🙂

      June 12, 2013 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
  22. Larry

    Ya think? And they spent MONEY to come up with this? Where can I apply for a grant – my topic would be "Does staring at women's butts while you're driving increase the odds of an accident?"

    June 11, 2013 at 22:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. lmfao

    That's a "no brainer" by"using your head"....

    June 12, 2013 at 12:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. AngelaD

    I don't need a study to know that repeated hits to the head will cause brain damage!

    June 12, 2013 at 13:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. JT

    I played up until I was 18 and that same year I noticed that one of my pupils is bigger than the other. The doctors did MRIs but didnt' find any damage. They attributed it to playing soccer and heading the ball (or possible heading someone else, that happens pretty often, too)

    June 12, 2013 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Ryan the Stats Student

    This study cant really be taken seriously. Only 37 players were sampled......thats a really small data sample when you figure ALL of the estimated 750 million people who play soccer around the world. So make a better test before you publish an article

    June 13, 2013 at 03:06 | Report abuse | Reply
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    November 4, 2013 at 19:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. limboaz

    The problem with this kind of study is that it does not rule out other factors. For example, players that head the ball more often are more likely to suffer head injuries from butting heads with other players as they attempt to head the ball. Also, players that head the ball a lot may also engage in more aggressive play which can lead to head injuries from other causes, like falls.

    November 17, 2013 at 09:34 | Report abuse | Reply
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