Soccer players who frequently ‘head’ the ball may be hurting their brain

Soccer players who frequently ‘head’ the ball may be hurting their brain

Tackling things head on is ordinarily a good thing, but for soccer players it may have some dire consequences. Yeshiva University researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have found that soccer players who “head” the ball, where players field the soccer ball with their head, show brain abnormalities similar to those found in patients suffering from concussion or mild traumatic brain injury.

The study, published in the June online edition of the journal Radiology, used advanced imaging techniques and cognitive tests that assessed memory.

“Soccer is widely played by people of all ages, and there is concern that heading the ball—a key component of the sport—might damage the brain,” said Dr. Michael Lipton, associate director of Einstein’s Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center, in a statement.

According to the research, on average, soccer players head the ball six to 12 times during games, where balls can travel at speeds of more than 50 miles per hour. During practice sessions, players usually head the ball repeatedly—up to 30 or more times. The impact from a single heading is not likely to cause traumatic brain damage, but scientists have worried that cumulative damage from repeated impacts might be significant.

“Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibers in the brain,” Dr. Lipton said. “But repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells over time.”

Researchers used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), an advanced MRI-based imaging technique, on 37 amateur adult soccer plays with an average age of 31 who all had played soccer since childhood. Participants reported playing soccer for an average of 22 years and had played an average of 10 months over the previous year.

Players were ranked based on heading frequency and then the DTI brain images of the most frequent headers were compared with those of the remaining players. All participants also underwent cognitive testing.

“The DTI findings pertaining to the most frequent headers in our study showed white-matter abnormalities similar to what we’ve seen in patients with concussion,” said Dr. Lipton. “Soccer players who headed the ball above a threshold between 885 to 1,550 times a year had significantly lower FA in three areas of the temporal-occipital white matter.”

Dr. Lipton noted that players with more than 1,800 headings per year were also more likely to demonstrate poorer memory scores compared to participants with fewer yearly headings.

“Our study provides compelling preliminary evidence that brain changes resembling mild traumatic brain injury are associated with frequently heading a soccer ball over many years,” said Dr. Lipton. “While further research is clearly needed, our findings suggest that controlling the amount of heading that people do may help prevent brain injury that frequent heading appears to cause.”

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