The People's Perspective on Medicine

Soccer Players Putting Their Brains in Danger

For soccer players, heading the ball may be even more dangerous than colliding with another player. This move may result in concussion symptoms.
Sport, football and people – soccer player playing and juggling ball using header technique on field

Soccer is normally considered a safe sport, relatively speaking. Compared to football players, for example, soccer players are thought to be less vulnerable to head injury. When concussions occur in soccer, they are usually blamed on player collisions. But a new study suggests that heading the soccer ball could itself result in concussion symptoms (Stewart et al, Frontiers in Neurology, online, April 24, 2018).

Soccer Players Heading the Ball:

The scientists recruited over 300 amateur soccer players between 18 and 55 years of age. The volunteers filled out detailed questionnaires about their participation in soccer during the preceding two weeks. They also took a variety of tests to measure memory, verbal learning, attention and processing speed.

Players who reported heading the ball most frequently performed worse on many of these cognitive tests. Psychomotor speed was also affected.

Although the results were subtle, the investigators are concerned that many months or years of repeated ball heading might lead to irreversible changes in brain function.

Previous Studies on Heading a Soccer Ball:

This is not the first study to suggest that heading the ball could be bad for soccer players. One study published in 2017 found that players who did this more often appeared more vulnerable to concussions.

An earlier study, published in 2013, also raised red flags for soccer players:

Heading the Ball:

Heading a soccer ball repeatedly may injure the brain (Radiology, Sep. 2013). Researchers detected microscopic changes in brain structure among players who headed the ball more than 1,000 times in a year. Memory scores were also lower in those who headed the ball more than 1,800 times annually.

During practice, players may head a ball 30 times or more in quick succession. During a game, a soccer ball is often moving at 50 miles per hour. Some players may head the ball a dozen times or more. The investigators call for research to develop strategies to protect the brain during soccer practice and games.

Keep in mind that these were not pro soccer players. They were high-level amateurs who loved the game. They had been playing for an average of 22 years.

What concerns is that a lot of young children are now soccer enthusiasts. Don’t get us wrong, we think soccer is a wonderful sport and we love it that kids are playing. But what is the long-term impact of repeated ball heading on a young brain? Until we know more about this, perhaps kids should be encouraged to do less heading in practice.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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The doctor who discovered CTE brain disorder does not recommend 5 sports due to potential concussions, even without direct contact: football, rugby, soccer, wrestling, and hockey. He recommends other sports such as track and field, swimming, and other sports that help develop children rather than expose them to concussion risks.

The inside of a football helmet is padded, but the outside is hard. For several years now I have wondered WHY this continues to be true? The only answer I have seen is that a soft or outside padded helmet looks “weird”. I can agree, but how “weird” does a brain- damaged former football player look?

In Soccer they don’t wear any helmets or padding. Why not, even with younger children? Why is the most important part of the human body not treated as such and protected better? Maybe the reason is the same as why we don’t have seat belts in school buses.

I think we are either too ignorant or we don’t care about the safety of others. We would rather let the very real risks remain rather than spend a few bucks, and embrace change in light of what we have learned over time.

Good article. In 1989, my 16 y/o daughter sustained a right frontal head injury from heading a soccer ball. Within minutes of heading the ball, she became unconscious. She had to be taken to the closest ER vs the trauma center where I worked, and care was slow, taking 2 hrs before a CT scan was done. She awoke volatile vomiting with a severe headache. When transferred to my hospital, Neurosurgery ( no surgery) reviewed records and found a hairline fracture in right frontal brain. She went through outpatient brain injury rehabilitation due to cognitive and behavioral issues from the injury. She learned how to manage her issues and eventually graduated with honors from college with the help of the Students for Disabilities program. Having worked with head traumas – the key is good immediate ER care, follow up with a brain injury specialist even if a “concussion”, and neuropsych testing to determine cognitive/memory issues. The more you educate yourself and the more help you seek, the better chances of recovery. Be an advocate as Concussions are still being treated like a small issue on the ER level. Your State Vocational Rehab is a good resource and may help financially to pay for rehab and testing services. It was a long few years, but with a lot of medical/ family support and perseverance on her part she was able to manage her life. The National Head Injury Foundation is a great resource

I have long thought that soccer players face injuries similar to football players because ‘heading the ball’ could very likely injure the brain. That children are playing a game using their heads as a sort of bat is inexcusable. Why not eliminate heading the ball altogether? ‘Less’ heading will not prevent brain injuries. Not heading the ball will.

Great point CYD! I am in 100% agreement with no need to “heading the ball”. I wrote my story above about my daughter in 1989 and even sent my story to the National Head Injury Foundation and Soccer Association about the dangers of heading a ball– however, NHI was responsive but the Soccer Association did not view it as problem– now look how many years later it is a “problem”. Experience is the best teacher!

I played soccer in HS and college 4 yrs, then continued for another 16 years in leagues. I have been diagnosed with chronic concussion syndrome at 62 yrs old. It doesn’t take but a mere tap on my head or a quick jolt to ring my bell these days. I often played with migraine like headaches in college and never saw a doctor or was held out of practice or games. I enjoyed playing so it remains to be seen what transpires as I get older. When sports are played aggressively there will always be injuries. Players beware.

nearly 3 million kids went to the ER for soccer related injuries between 2000-2014. 7% of them—thats 200,000 kids—had concussions. yet soccer is touted as being so much safer than football. that alone is reason enough to be skeptical.
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/youth-soccer-injuries-soaring-including-concussions-heres-why/
heres a comparison of football and soccer
https://www.livestrong.com/article/373634-what-do-you-have-to-wear-in-football/

I coached recreational soccer with 8 – 12-year-olds when my kids were that age a little over a decade ago. The issue was on the radar even then. I didn’t emphasize heading the ball and at least once told my players to keep their head out of the way if the ball was moving fast. Occasionally a player (frequently a girl) would get hit in the head accidentally by a fast moving ball. It might have been a good idea to take that player out of the game or at least tell her to not head the ball. It was rare enough, no one got hit more than once in a game (or even a season).

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