One is likely to think of a boxer’s left hook or a mishap on the ski hill when the words “sports” and “head injury” appear in the same sentence, but new research suggests an essential element of the world’s most popular athletic pastime may cause brain damage over time.
The culprit? The ubiquitous ‘header’, taught to small children at house league soccer practice and perfected by pros who routinely use their heads to direct balls flying at up to 80 km/hour. A choice move of footballers in a game with no hand contact allowed, goals scored using the head are also beloved amongst the sport’s fans.
But a new study published in Radiology may challenge the heading tradition to go unchecked. The MRI-supported study, called ”Heading a Soccer Ball Could Lead to Brain Injury’, states that repeated heading of a soccer ball causes memory loss and brain abnormalities similar to patients who have suffered head trauma.
“We chose to study soccer players because soccer is the most popular sport worldwide,” says Michael L. Lipton, MD, director of the research. “It is widely played by people of all ages, including children, and there is significant concern that heading the ball–a key component of soccer–might cause damage to the brain.” The study looked at the brains of 37 adults who had been playing amateur soccer for an average of 22 years.”The brain findings of the most frequent headers in our study showed abnormalities of white matter similar to what we’ve seen in patients with concussion,” says Lipton. “Soccer players who headed the ball above a threshold of 885 to 1,550 times a year had significantly lower FA in three areas of the temporal-occipital white matter.”
It is not clear what this research will mean for a sport that over 265 million people enjoy worldwide. Though the idea of footballers wearing helmets admittedly feels silly, it may be important for purists to remember that impact sports like hockey used to be played without protective head gear, as well.