Since the discovery that soccer is linked to high rates of brain injuries similar to those found in football and hockey players, the assumption has been that the brain damage was associated with the repeated “headers”, or a player using their head to direct the ball.
This assumption isn’t entirely baseless, several researchers have shown an association between the number of headers each player does in a season and a heightened risk of brain injury. But, the evidence was far from overwhelming and we continued with the assumption nonetheless.
Most likely the heightened rates of brain injury in soccer are just as complex as they are in other sports. A combination of risky play strategies, aggressive competition, and “play through the pain” mentality promote the same dangers found in other contact sports.
But, it is undeniable that one factor has been ignored; soccer players actually get hit in the head quite a bit. While headers almost certainly constitute the majority of head impacts for soccer players, they are minor bumps compared to the harsh collision of players against each other, players and the ground, and players against goalposts.
Few people have researched this issue, but Robert Cantu is one of the relatively limited number of researchers to be extensively investigating the source of the brain injuries occurring within the sport. He agrees that “the single most risky activity in soccer is heading the ball,” but he also explains that this could be due to the increased risk of contact with other players or the ground in those situations.
Currently, no one knows exactly where these brain injuries are forming from. Soccer is absolutely a tough sport and focusing on heading on its own may be missing some important relevant information. Still, it is important to also understand the issue and how the types of contact present with headers may play a role.
Notably, Mother Jones recently wrote an article all but denying the risk of repeatedly using your brain to bounce a ball. But, all of their data is based on studies of traumatic brain injuries, not the long-term damage associated with these brain injuries.
Heading the ball isn’t believed to typically cause the classic concussion. The concern is that even hits that are not capable of causing a concussion or diagnosable TBI could still be creating damage that accumulates into long-term brain damage such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And, this isn’t an issue unique to soccer.
A recent study from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research and the University of Tulsa showed that even football players who had not been diagnosed with a concussion exhibit brain damage in the white matter and hippocampus volume.
We would all like to know the root cause of brain injuries immediately, but it is important to keep in mind just how little we understand about traumatic brain injuries. We may understand the processes that occur after the injury happens, but discovering exactly what is sparking traumatic brain injuries and long-term brain damage is a much more complex issue with an undoubtedly complex answer.