Many consider “heading” a ball in soccer to be a classic part of the game, useful for both scoring and passing. However, a growing body of research suggests these “headers” may also be putting the brain at risk.
A new study published in the journal Neurology suggests that soccer players who head the balls the most are also at the highest risk for concussions. This leads the team from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York to believe the relatively small bumps to the head may make the brain more vulnerable to injury.
The study included 222 amateur soccer players, 175 of which were men and 47 who were women. All players were asked to report the number of times they headed the ball over a two-week period, as well as any unintentional head impacts like collisions with other players.
The data collected showed that men headed the ball a bit more on average – 44 times in two weeks compared to 27 times – with an average of 5.3 headers per game. However, a small number of players headed the balls significantly more than most.
Those who categorized as heading the balls the most averaged 125 headers over two weeks. They were also three times more vulnerable to concussion compared to those who averaged less than four headers in the study period.
“Over a quarter of a billion people play soccer all across the world,” says Michael Lipton, a professor of radiology and psychiatry/behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and lead author on the study. “So it’s key to understand the long-term effects of headers, a skill unique to the sport.”
This study is just the latest calling into question the safety of heading the ball. Past research has indicated that the small “sub-concussive” hits can rack up over time to create observable changes to the brain.
In recognition of the concern about headers, some organizations including have made changes to limit the number of headers kids do during a season. Many youth leagues for players under 10 have entirely eliminated the practice.