By Ken Reed

For years, soccer observers have suspected a link between the practice of heading and brain injury, including concussions. However, scientific evidence has been limited on that front.

That’s beginning to change as the case against heading in terms of brain safety builds.

We’ve known for sometime that soccer has a greater number of concussions than other sports. For example, girls soccer is second only to football for number of concussions in youth and high school sports. However, the causes haven’t been fully understood. Head-to-head collisions, along with head-to-knee and head-to-foot blows are part of the problem. But we know now that heading can cause concussion symptoms.

In a study released yesterday in the journal Neurology, researchers found that soccer players who head the ball on a regular basis are three times more likely to have concussion symptoms than players who don’t head the ball often.

“These results show that heading the ball is indeed related to concussion symptoms, which is contrary to a recent study that suggested that collisions were responsible for most concussions,” said study author Michael L. Lipton, MD, PhD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY. “The findings raise concerns about the long-term effects from heading the ball, and more research is needed.”

Late last year, a study revealed that heading can cause brain injury.

The United Kingdom study, published by EBioMedicine, is hthe first to detect neurological changes caused by sub-concussive impacts such as heading. Changes in motor response and memory were observed in the study participants, ages 19 to 25.

“For the first time, sporting bodies and members of the public can see clear evidence of the risks associated with repetitive impact caused by heading a soccer ball,” said Angus Hunter of the University of Stirling in Scotland in a statement released with the study.

Habitually heading soccer balls may have similar effects on the brain as the repetitive sub-concussive hits that offensive and defensive linemen receive banging heads along the line of scrimmage in football.

“Long-term (brain) damage may have less to do with the number of diagnosed concussions and perhaps more to do with the number of sub-concussive impacts to the head,” according to Kevin Guskiewicz, a brain researcher at the University of North Carolina.

A study of Italian soccer players suggests that soccer players are six times more likely to develop motor neuronal disease (MND) than the general population.

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

When you think about it, sticking your head (read: brain) in front of a hard-flying orb — one that can come at you at speeds upwards of 50mph at elite levels — doesn’t make much sense.

Now we’re getting more scientific evidence to support the natural human impulse to get one’s head out of the way of said orb.

Yet, in parks across the nation, soccer coaches yell at young soccer players to “Stick your head in there!” during heading practice.

Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University Medical Center, believes heading should simply be eliminated from youth soccer under the age of 14.

That’s a good start.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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