Heading Soccer Balls May Lead to Brain Damage

Repeatedly heading a soccer ball, even just a few times a day, may lead to brain damage.

That’s the result of a new study presented today by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Montefiore Medical Center at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago.

The New York researchers used an advanced MRI-based imaging technique to scan the brains of 38 amateur soccer players, average age 30, who had all played soccer since they were kids.

The researchers compared the images to the number of times the players had headed the ball during the past year.

They found that players who headed the ball frequently showed brain injury similar to that seen in patients with concussion, also known as mild traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

The threshold for “significant injury” seemed to be in those players who exceeded 1,000 to 1,500 headers a year.

“While heading a ball 1,000 or 1,500 times a year may seem high to those who don’t participate in the sport, it only amounts to a few times a day for a regular player,” said lead author Michael Lipton, MD, PhD, associate director of Einstein’s Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center and medical director of MRI services at Montefiore.

“Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibers in the brain.

But repetitive heading may set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells.”

In a related study, researchers found that players who headed a ball most frequently performed worse on tests of verbal memory and psychomotor speed, a measure of hand-eye coordination.

“These two studies present compelling evidence that brain injury and cognitive impairment can result from heading a soccer ball with high frequency,” Dr. Lipton said.

With increasing awareness of the dangers of concussions in youth football and hockey, more soccer research may lead to the establishment of heading guidelines, similar to the pitch count limitations now in effect for youth baseball players.

“We, including the agencies that supervise and encourage soccer play, need to do the further research to precisely define the impact of excessive heading on children and adults in order to develop parameters within which soccer play will be safe over the long term,” said Dr. Lipton.

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