That Goal Can Mess With Your Head

Risk of brain injury and memory problems linked to heading a soccer ball too often

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Scoring a goal by heading the ball sure looks cool on TV. Heading in soccer is not known to cause any major injuries either. Why the concern then?

A new study showed that when done repeatedly, heading can cause damage to the brain that is detectable by special tests.

According to the study, soccer players who headed the ball frequently did poorly on memory tests and had microscopic injuries in their brain.

"Ask your doctor how to avoid sports-related injuries."

The study was conducted by Michael L. Lipton, MD, PhD, associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and colleagues.

The aim of the study was to find out if heading a soccer ball frequently was associated with certain types of brain injuries seen on a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

According to the researchers, soccer players head the ball six to 12 times on average during games, and soccer balls can travel at speeds of 50 miles per hour or even more. The number of times players head the ball during practice sessions goes up to 30 or more times.

The researchers looked at 29 male and eight female amateur soccer players with median age 31 years. The players had played soccer for an average of 22 years and for an average of 10 months in the previous year.

An estimate of how often each player headed the ball each year was made. The players then underwent memory testing and a special MRI technique.

In this MRI technique, it is possible to look at microscopic changes in the brain. In this case, the researchers measured something called fractional anisotropy (FA). Lower FA values have been found to be associated with brain function and thinking problems.

The researchers found abnormalities in the brain of soccer players who headed the ball more frequently. Players who headed the ball more than 885 to 1,550 times a year had lower FA scores than the other players.

Also, players who headed the ball more than 1,800 times each year had significantly poorer memory scores than those who headed the ball fewer times.

The press release associated with the study highlights the recent attention concussions have received in the media, causing concern among athletes. According to the researchers, heading usually does not immediately cause concussions and related injuries have not been studied in detail.

However, the results of this study suggest that heading can still have an impact on the brain if it happens frequently.

"Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibers in the brain," Dr. Lipton pointed out. "But repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells over time."

Dr. Lipton continued, "What we've shown here is compelling initial evidence that there are brain changes that look like traumatic brain injury which are associated with heading a soccer ball with high frequency."

The study authors recommended further research in this area to validate the study results so that measures can be taken to avoid such injuries.

Nancy Chiaravalloti, PhD, Director of Neuropsychology & Neuroscience and Traumatic Brain Injury Research at Kessler Foundation, New Jersey and DailyRx contributing expert says, "Most people expect only impacts to the head with immediate consequences to have long term effects.  This article clearly demonstrates that this is not the case and indicates that this routine impact to the head has long term consequences to white matter integrity as well as cognitive performance.   An important next step in this research is identifying means of decreasing such consequences for athletes."

This study was published online June 11 in Radiology, a journal published by the Radiological Society of North America.

The authors informed dailyRx News that the study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The authors did not disclose any conflicts of interest or financial relationships relevant to the study.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 10, 2013
Last Updated:
August 7, 2013