Should coaches ban heading the soccer ball?

February 14, 2017 Providence Health Team

Studies suggest headers can damage brains of all ages

To the growing body of evidence that suggests heading a soccer ball is bad for your brain, add a new study published in the journal Neurology that suggests such routine plays can boost the risk of a concussion.

While soccer is played primarily with the feet, multiple plays each game involve players jumping to use their heads to strike and redirect a ball. While such plays happen regularly with no obvious ill-effects, they cause what researchers have called sub-concussive impacts—impacts without disruption of brain function.

The new study suggests the results of these hits are more serious than that.

Researchers from several medical schools in the northeastern United States examined the effects of repeated heading on memory, episodes of dizziness and other symptoms of central nervous system (CNS) damage. Unlike previous studies that have focused on professional or youth soccer players, this one focused on amateur adult players, male and female.

The researchers found the 222 amateur players surveyed reported a median of 38 headings over two weeks of practices and games. Some also reported hits to the head by elbows, knees and even the goalposts. Twenty percent of the players reported some CNS symptoms.

The point of the study, said editorial writers for Neurology, is “that heading can be more than a sub-concussive event.”

Soccer and the brain

Researchers have long recognized that amateur and professional athletes who sustain repeated blows to the head can have brain damage. Studies involving boxers and American football players have shown how these blows can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease.

As soccer has become more popular in this country, researchers are increasingly examining its effects on players’ brains. A 2016 study published in EBioMedicine, for example, found that routine heading causes “immediate, measurable electrophysiological and cognitive impairments.” In 2015, U.S. Soccer, the sport’s governing body, unveiled a series of initiatives intended to prevent or reduce the number of concussions among young players.

At Providence, we take concussions seriously. We know that prompt recognition and treatment of concussion symptoms can minimize their effects. You can check out Providence’s sideline checklist for concussion management, symptom tracker and parent/athlete fact sheet at the Providence Concussion Management page.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has drawn together an array of resources for parents, coaches, teachers, athletes and health care providers at its Heads Up page.

Signs of a concussion

Anybody assessing whether a soccer player – or anyone – has suffered a concussion should consider the CDC’s list of observed signs and reported symptoms.

After a hit to the head, a person may have a concussion if he or she:

  • Can’t recall events before or after the hit
  • Appears dazed or stunned
  • Forgets instructions or shows confusion
  • Moves clumsily
  • Answers questions slowly
  • Loses consciousness, even briefly
  • Shows changes in mood or personality

Concussion symptoms a person may report may include:

  • Headache or “pressure” in the head
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance problems, dizziness, or blurred or double vision
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Feeling sluggish or groggy
  • Confusion, or concentration problems

If the symptoms worsen, you should help get the person to an emergency department right away, the CDC advises.

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