Soccer Headers and Brain Damage – An Open Question?

By | February 21, 2012

Several health and science news stories have reported on research studies that looked at soccer headers and possible brain damage. Current research isn’t conclusive on the short term effects of multiple headers off a soccer ball, at least when it comes to cognitive performance. What did jump out at me from one study was that some soccer players head the ball 1,000 to 1,500 times per year.

A more specific term for a header is subconcussive impact. Sustaining over 1,000 subconcussive impacts to a brain is a lot of bumping and shaking for neurons and connecting white matter to deal with. Using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), researchers measured the integrity of white matter (the wiring that connects different regions of the brain together) in 32 amateur soccer players. The DTI results showed that the integrity of brain white matter in soccer players who headed the ball more than 1,000 times each year showed measurable decline or impairment.

The body of evidence on the long term effects of soccer headers is surprisingly thin. One small study of retired soccer players in Norway reported cerebral atrophy and impairment on intelligence test abilities that are particularly vulnerable to brain damage. Also noteworthy in these retired players were persistent physical, cognitive, and emotional complaints consistent with postconcussive syndrome.

I think a measure of common sense comes in handy with this issue – intentionally bumping the front or top of your head into anything 1,000 or more times a year probably isn’t a good idea. Also, growing research points to the fact that safety and behavior choices we make in our younger years can impact our brain health later in life.

Many states have enacted sports concussion legislation in the past few years, which typically will require mandatory concussion management policies that school administrators and athletic departments are responsible for implementing. While the guidelines aren’t perfect, I think it’s a reasonable step to help identify concussion symptoms in student athletes.