Recent studies suggest that "heading" a soccer ball repeatedly can change the brain microstructure and performance. This popular maneuver involves using one's forehead to direct the path of the ball, usually once it has fallen from a significant height. While each occurrence may not produce a damaging amount of force, research has shown that repeatedly engaging in this behavior can cause irreparable trauma. More specifically, Michael L. Lipton, MD, PhD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, explains that diffusion tensor imaging has revealed that three areas of white matter often have substantially lower fractional anisotropy—which is an indication of axonal injury—once a player has reached a threshold or 885 to 1,550 "headers" per year.
In many cases, the number of headers that a soccer player does each year also corresponds with lower memory scores, namely due to damaged axons in the brain. According to researchers, however, "these findings were not significantly associated with prior concussion." Rather, "they are consistent with findings seen in patients with [traumatic brain injury]." So, just how risky is this athletic maneuver? On average, soccer players will head the ball six to twelve times a game. During practice drills, they may do as many as thirty in rapid succession, sometimes with the ball moving as fast as 50 miles per hour. While concerns have been raised about the risky nature of this particular maneuver, little has been done to examine its damaging effects. For this reason, the team at the
Brain Injury Research Institute encourages all athletes to err on the side of caution.
If you have any further questions about the potentially damaging effects of long-term careers in contact sports, we ask you to speak with a member of our team today. You can reach us at (412) 452-4447.